The Covid-19 pandemic set off a tidal wave of consequences which rippled around the world- health scares, the strain on healthcare systems internationally, mass lock-downs, retrenchments, economic disruptions, loss of livelihood, loss of life. On the social front, people are distanced from family and friends (for those working/studying away from home) in an attempt to contain the spread. It has been, and still is a struggle for most, especially considering how people are impacted differently by the pandemic and its fallout. In the midst of it all, most people try to take a positive view of things-or, occasionally (and with increasing frequency), have a positive outlook placed before/ pushed on to them.
Being positive has never been considered a negative trait- instead, the ability to be positive has always been considered admirable and one to be curated. There are times, however, when being told or ‘advised’ to remain positive, or to ‘look on the bright side of things’ in the midst of a difficult situation is not what is needed- especially when someone is in the midst of breaking down. In times like this, well-meaning as they are, these platitudes are NOT what is needed. Instead, they may wind up having a negative impact on a person- especially when they are insincere, dismissive or brush off how the other person is feeling. In situations such as this, positivity, rather than motivating you, becomes something negative. Something toxic.
You might be wondering, “How can positivity become toxic?”. Listed below are a few samples of toxic positivity:
“I’ve been really struggling with this whole pandemic situation, it gets quite tough…”
Toxic Positivity: “Everyone’s been affected, you should count your blessings instead of complaining.”
“I miss seeing my friends, it’s for our safety, but it gets frustrating being cooped up at home…”
Toxic Positivity: “Be thankful you have a home to be cooped up in! So many people are suffering because they can’t afford to socially distance- you could have it worse!”
“I got laid off from work recently, my partner is the sole breadwinner now- I’m so worried about the future…”
Toxic Positivity: “You’re still healthy and at least your partner still has a job- you should look at this as a blessing in disguise. Just stay positive, you’ll be back on your feet in no time !”
Be grateful. Thank your lucky stars. Count your blessings. It could be so much worse. Everything happens for a reason. It’s not at bad as… and so on.
“But…these are remarks people make to try and make someone feel better. How are they toxic??” As mentioned, these platitudes aren’t all bad- most of the time, people make these remarks as a way of reassurance, or to provide some form of comfort. However, toxic positivity has an unfortunate effect of invalidating or brushing off people’s actual feelings- rather than acknowledging the hurt/ pain/ negative emotion experienced by a person. Toxic comments serve as a way to offer platitudes without actually connecting or empathising with how someone feels. And unfortunately, the rise in positivity culture thanks to the pandemic and its aftershocks have only compounded the issue.
With a lot of influential celebrities, instagrammers, and even friends and family telling us so, it does get hard to believe that we shouldn’t be positive all the time, and that feeling of frustration, upset, hurt or even anger about something is bad. But that is not true.
Studies have shown that to ignore emotions such as sadness, frustration, stress, and anger result in those emotions becoming even more intense when acknowledged. Instead of experiencing negative emotions and letting them pass as a normal part of being human, we also experience secondary emotions such as shame- which can have even more of a negative impact on us, mentally and emotionally. This is because in addition to the negative emotions we’re already experiencing- we also feel shame- shame for feeling that way in the first place when “so many people have it worse”, and shame for “being so negative” instead of toughing things out.
Yes, being positive is good for you, and yes, maintaining a positive attitude can help overcome difficult situations. In fact, with how difficult times are currently, forcing yourself to stay positive tends to be the knee-jerk reaction it is, psychologists have remarked, an attempt to exert some control over our lives in troubling times. But forcing yourself to ignore negative emotions is not the solution- in fact, it’s downright dangerous to your mental health! Rather than serving as a motivator, toxic positivity instead places more pressure on you to perform- it makes you feel that you have to be productive, you have to spend your time wisely, you have to accomplish something. And when you don’t, or when the pressure gets to you, you end up feeling disappointed in yourself or inadequate- just because you’re focusing your energy on getting through the day instead of exerting yourself to do more.
But you know what? It’s okay. It’s okay that all your energy is focused on making it through the day instead of being extra-productive. It’s okay that you’re feeling stressed and scared about an uncertain job market. It’s okay to be worried about the pandemic and how it’s affected all of us. It’s okay to feel sad that you’re separated from your friends and family. Emotions such as fear, worry, sadness, they’re what shape our experiences and make us who we are- they are what make us human. Being positive is good. Looking on the bright side of things is good. But remember, you’re human- not a robot. There will be days when you feel positive and ready to take on the world and all its challenges. There will be days when you feel like curling up in your blanket and hiding away from the rest of the world. There will be days when you want to cry and scream and let your emotions loose. And that is okay.
And now- the hard part. If your immediate reaction to the list of examples above was “But isn’t that what anyone would say to try and comfort someone”, then you may have unintentionally provided toxic positivity instead of moral support. No, this isn’t your signal to beat yourself up over it- you may have done so, but it was done unintentionally- you genuinely wanted to provide comfort. And now that you are aware of the possibility, you’ll be able to guard against accidentally making statements which reinforce toxic positivity. To make it clearer, we have a list of phrases which both comfort and validate emotions which you can say instead;
You just have to be positive! → I’m sure it feels hard to be positive in a situation like this. I’m here if you need to talk.
There are worse things out there! → This is really tough and I’m here for you.
Stop being so negative! → It’s normal to feel negative in this situation.
I’m sure it’s not as bad as it seems. → This is hard, but I believe you’ll get through it.
So reader, go forth in the world and remember this- emotion is human. Emotion is what makes us who we are. Think of them as a wave- allow them to pass over you and move on. Just make sure that you ride the wave instead of letting it ride you. Stay safe everyone!