Toxic positivity. It sounds incongruous, impossible even. How can something so synonymous with goodness, joy, happiness ever be equated with toxicity? In what world is optimism a poison? Yet anyone reading this who has ever tried to express a problem to a friend and been met with well-meaning yelps of “look on the bright side”, “it could be worse”, “you just need to stay positive” knows that not only does toxic positivity exist, it is fast becoming omnipresent as it morphs from an inspirational Instagram post to a rigid mantra we feel we must embody in order to succeed or be accepted.
Toxic positivity refers to the concept that focusing solely on positive emotions while rejecting anything that may trigger negativity is the right and only way to live. Intended to uplift, it thus often has the opposite effect, dragging us down with feelings of weakness, inadequacy or frustration for failing to remain upbeat or be understood by friends who instead invite us to “think of the bigger picture”. It is a chastisement of our complaining, fretting or grieving; a slap on the wrist of our privilege and a pressure to deny how a certain situation really makes us feel.
And toxic positivity is EVERYWHERE. In my head, in conversations with friends, on billboards, newsfeeds and peppy, plant-based food packaging. Positivity is no longer just a currency, it’s a commodity, and a valuable one at that because within it lies the allure of a cure to almost any ailment from unemployment to loneliness. Even cancer is not exempt from its power. After all, the only thing standing in our way of a happier, healthier, more successful life is a positive outlook. Or at least that’s what they tell me.
And while a positive mindset can bring untold benefits to our wellbeing, I equally believe that placing such emphasis on it is almost as damaging as rejecting it outright. You see, the second we deem something to be ‘good’ or ‘right’ we automatically condemn its opposite as ‘bad’ and ‘evil’. Every hero must have its corresponding villain and, if staying positive is like a superfood smoothie for our mental health, then negativity in any form must inevitably be the greasy spice bag equivalent. This is where the toxicity lies – when ‘being positive’ becomes a pressure to repress how we really feel because those feelings are negative and therefore ‘wrong’. It is an automatic and fatal shutdown that everyone reading this has experienced and unintentionally encouraged – a closing off of self that rejects not only difficult emotions but also any attempt to articulate them.
In the not-so-distant past, I was unemployed and reaching a stage where I was unsure I would ever be employed again. I knew, rationally, that this was not true but clinging to an “anything is possible” mindset when life felt like one long game of rejection wasn’t always easy. The effort of hope – particularly when meeting friends giddy in their post-work buzz – frequently felt too much.
“Something will turn up”, “it could be so much worse”, “there’s no point worrying” became common refrains amongst those around me and, even though I agreed with them, even though I knew this to be true, these supportive remarks just made me feel more alone in a negativity I construed as weakness.
“There’s no point worrying” was meant as a vote of confidence in my abilities. However, I interpreted it as a personal criticism that dismissed my worry as stupid and silly. To my mind, what they were really saying was the gnawing anxiety and uncertainty that haunted my idle moments was irrelevant and unimportant. “It could be so much worse” was supposed to uplift me with a dollop of ‘big picture positivity’. Except this kind of phrase didn’t give me motivational perspective, it just gave me the added burden of guilt as I plummeted down the rabbit hole of global inequality and universal trauma. “Something will turn up” was a confident chant charged with lightening my sombre mood; the definitive “will” intended to combat insecurity and an increasingly murky future. However, to me it seemed an undermining of my current upset – what did I care for the future when I was weighed down with the preoccupations of the present?
To these tokens of positivity, my response was a consolidation of the upset I had made myself vulnerable in trying to express. An exasperated “I know”, a frustration that festered in sleepless nights, a quick cheek-flushed change of subject, and a renewed promise not to share my painful reality again. Because, what we too often forget when counselling loved ones in these dark moments, is that whether everything will be ok or not is often the most irrelevant point. We don’t want a quick-fix solution in a pithy soundbite, we don’t want a detailed map of the yellow brick road to utopian Oz. Actually, all we want is a recognition of how we’re feeling, and a validation of whatever difficulty we’re encountering. When having a bad day/ month/ year, we don’t actually care if it will all work out eventually or if the perfect job/ relationship/ fresh start is just around the corner. All we know is that right now, it isn’t, and no amount of prospecting can change that.
Knowing that this moment of complete misery will become a funny anecdote I tell in Aras an Uachtaran when I’m sworn in as the new President of Ireland someday doesn’t lessen that misery. Being told to stay positive doesn’t automatically instil me with hope or inspiration; it just makes me feel weak and ungrateful for succumbing to self-doubt and sadness.
And sadness is such an important emotion in human development! There is such joy to be found in wallowing, such therapy in unhappiness when untethered to the pressure to contextualise, justify, or talk ourselves out of it. The truth is, sadness – and all those other difficult emotions we would love to sweep under the rug – opens up a whole world of self-exploration. It is rare we stop mid-laughter to ask ourselves why we’re happy or, in the throes of euphoria, to pause and analyse the causes of this unprecedented joy. Negative feelings, on the other hand, demand analysis and invite exploration, thus positing a vital opportunity for learning and personal growth. It is these uncomfortable vulnerabilities that build resilience, strength, and empathy. They underpin not only our humanity but humanity’s very survival – a catalogue of emotional evolution that has propelled the human race forward. Think of the songs never written, the novels never published, the films never responsible for empty Kleenex boxes and panda eyes should positivity have remained the only acceptable expression of human emotion. We should and must champion the negative feelings, embrace them as we do passion, excitement, love, knowing that they serve us a purpose and, within them, if we have the courage to look, there is untapped potential for beauty, understanding, and, dare I say it, happiness.
While I could extoll the benefits of sitting in challenging emotions endlessly, I must stop writing now as I’m in danger of perpetuating the exact thing I’m trying to critique. Before I come dangerously close to smothering this piece in positive spins and silver linings, let me end with this question: why does there always have to be a bright side, positive outcome, happy ending? Difficult emotions don’t need to be contextualised. They don’t need to be explained or ignored. They just need to be owned. Because sometimes, whatever challenge we’re facing – be it big or small – doesn’t need positivity. It doesn’t need an “everything will work out” or “tomorrow’s a new day”. Sometimes, all it needs is an all-round acknowledgement that whatever tomorrow will bring, whatever the bigger picture is, the picture we’re faced with right now is pretty shit. And that’s ok.
Changing the language of positivity:
How do you know if you’re at risk of going from being positive to a toxic positivity pest? Think about the language you use to comfort yourself and friends – does it acknowledge how you or they are feeling? Does it impose pressure or dismiss a hint of negativity? Most importantly, what reaction do your words inspire – do your friends feel encouraged to share more or do they shut down? This helpful guide can make sure you can still be positive and supportive, while leaving space for all of those difficult emotions toxic positivity ignores. Find it at www.themighty.com.