The problem with eternal optimism
We need to talk about toxic positivity’s chokehold over us.
I’ve always considered myself to be an optimist, mostly because of my ability to find light in the darkest of situations. You can call it naivety if you like, but I’ve just always been of the opinion that if life goes by in a millisecond, why waste a moment of that millisecond feeling sad about shit you can’t control?
With that said, over the past few years as I’ve hit my late 20s, I’ve felt pessimism slowly creep into my psyche as a result of the harsh lessons we all learn during this stage of life; that not everyone who smiles at you is your friend. That not everyone who says they’re looking out for you actually has your best interests at heart. That when the chips are down, no one’s coming to bail you out but you.
Honestly though, I’m grateful for these lessons and the person they’ve shaped me into today because frankly, you can’t survive in this world as a boundless optimist. Learning this has ultimately drained the water from my glass until I’ve landed at a place where it’s half full and I dance the line between being an optimist and pessimist. But sometimes I still feel that optimist side take over and, ironically, it’s not always a positive thing.
I was recently DMing with a mate and when asked how I was coping with lockdown, I responded saying things couldn’t be better. I had fallen into the trap that so many of us had found ourselves in during the pandemic: I was guilty of toxic positivity.
WHAT IS TOXIC POSITIVITY?
“Toxic positivity is the encouragement or advice to be positive despite whatever negative experiences or feelings you may be having,” psychologist Gemma Cribb, Clinical Psychologist at Equilibrium Psychology, told me.
“It is toxic in that it often invalidates a person’s real life experience and positions negative emotions as bad and to be denied or minimised.”
Although this is a concept that’s always existed, the pandemic has seen a massive spike in toxic positivity. Take my earlier yarn, for example. The world was essentially on fire, and there I was saying how fantastic things were.
Like with everything bad in life, this has been perpetuated by social media. During lockdown, on my daily Instagram doom-scroll, I’d find rising COVID case numbers and posts about violent protests sandwiched between aesthetically pleasing inspirational quotes that read: ‘We’re all in this together!’ and ‘We got this!’
The optimist in me would hit ‘like’ on those posts or even share them to my Instagram Story, but the pessimist in me would internally say something to the effect of:
‘Could you kindly fuck off?’
“For most people the pandemic and associated lockdowns and restrictions have been stressful and most people have experienced more negative emotions as a result of the changes the pandemic has brought to their lives,” Cribb added.
“As such, encouraging people to ‘look on the positive side’ can cause extra stress as it both suggests that anyone who feels bad isn’t coping as they should and puts pressure on them to work harder to ‘find the bright side’.”
The pandemic has taken a toll on all of us and we need to talk about it. In the instance of my DM convo with a mate, sugar-coating things with positivity did not benefit either of us. He would’ve walked away from that conversation thinking, ‘If his life is going so great, what’s wrong with mine?’ And by not being open and honest, I missed an opportunity for growth and healing by talking about how sucky lockdown has been. In the end, no one wins.
RECOGNISING THE TOXICITY
It can be hard to recognise toxic positivity, both in ourselves and others, because those who are guilty of it usually have the best of intentions.
Here, Cribb gave me some pointers on how to spot when positivity has gone over to the toxic side of things:
+ Platitudes such as “be grateful for what you have.”
+ Criticism of your negative feelings when you express them such as “You’re so negative!”
+ Advice given without time taken to truly understand how you are feeling and what you are going through, like “Just get some sun.”
+ Overly optimistic comments, posts or narratives which show little variation along an emotional spectrum eg. #lovemylife.
HOW TO COMBAT TOXIC POSITIVITY
In yourself: “Realise that this is about your own intolerance of negative emotion and is not helpful for someone in distress even if you mean well. Practice sitting with your friends and family and ask them open questions about their experience and how they feel, listen to their response with curiosity and without interruption and reflect what you have heard them say rather than giving advice.”
In others: “Limit consumption of media where you are exposed to toxic positivity. Find out which friends and family can tolerate your negative emotion and allow you time to express it and have regular contact with them. Self-validate by taking time to check in with yourself and mindfully observe and accept whatever emotions, body sensations and thoughts arise for you, you may even like to keep a journal of your experience.”
To some degree, I do understand why toxic positivity exists. Because what’s the alternative to being positive? Giving up? Going to the dark place? Surrendering to negativity? In my opinion, that’s just as bad. There’s got to be some middle ground where we allow ourselves to recognise that life sucks, talk about it, cry about it, bond with other humans about our shared shitty experience, then, when we’re ready, move on. That way of thinking can only make us stronger, right?