How is it that amongst the constant fire and brimstone of discourse the idea that we should ‘look on the bright side’ has become problematic? But just as archaic attitudes towards gender, outdated language and ‘cultural appropriation’ among any number of other once beloved customs have come under fire in recent years, it seems that the annoying and unhelpful brand of ‘toxic positivity’ is finally having its moment of reckoning. Admittedly these were two words I was surprised to see put together in mainstream media, in the same way I would not have expected to hear how negativity was, in fact, a good thing ().
For those unenlightened, toxic positivity, which follows in the oxymoronic tradition of terms like ‘bittersweet’ and ‘ethical capitalism’ is something of an in-vogue psychological buzzword highlighting the unintended consequence of a well-meaning but ultimately clumsy approach to mental health. It describes an unhealthy attitude to negative emotions that includes responding dismissively to them, attaching shame to them, or promoting an unrealistic idea of ‘positivity’ which has an adverse effect. A sort of obligatory optimism, if you like – something extremely pertinent around New Years.
The simplest illustration of this is in maxims such as ‘it could be worse’ or ‘try to stay positive’ – phrases that, far from being useful to the subject can come across as a bit condescending. This is something we have all felt at one point but maybe did not know how to articulate it.
Let’s be charitable though. When we spout these platitudes, I think it’s because we don’t really know what to say. What do you tell somebody who has just experienced an unimaginable tragedy? Or out of nowhere, gets very upset – that most socially awkward of emotions. Our instinct is to make ourselves useful, to show our compassion, but in assuming that somebody needs to be comforted in this very prescriptive way we forget that they probably aren’t hankering for more attention just at this moment. I mean, is ‘it’s going to be alright’ really what anybody wants to hear? It makes us feel like children who cannot grasp difficult concepts – inevitably we see through it and feel a dissonance. Strangely enough, there is something unintentionally selfish about trying to be comforting in certain situations, since we become more worried about how we appear to them than how they are feeling. However, this is something of a social grey area, and I don’t think it’s the main target of critics of toxic positivity – though it might help explain the phenomenon.
No, they are not so much taking aim at our messy attempts of condolence as our insensitivity to the more mundane toils of everyday life.
Take, for example, the stuff we are bludgeoned with from a young age; inane phrases such as ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’, commonly uttered by parents in response to their children’s name-calling woes in order to remind them that there are more important things to get upset over than the being referred to as a cow. Of course there is a lot of truth to this, but it also completely underestimates the power of words. It doesn’t take too much reminiscing to conjure up more few times when words stung a lot more than sharp objects. Words, though not inherently meaningful, are very good at sticking with us considering the context in which they are uttered. As Maya Angelou said: ‘At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.’ For example, I think few of my childhood friends will be able to forget the mixture of fear, hurt and confusion they felt when, after years of falling short of my expectations I called them ‘irredeemable donkeys’ – especially since most of them were, in fact, mules.
As someone who is endowed with what could be called a ‘resting bitch face’, I’m also aware of how readily we are prepared to label how others are feeling based on appearances. I need not go into detail of the frustration of being asked ‘are you alright?’ just because my face was not found to be
beaming with joy at that particular moment. Toxic positivity, it seems, is centred on appearances.
It can also be the assumption that we know what others need better than they do. This might be the case for children who are comparatively simple, but adults are complex, guarded, and multi-faceted. It’s fair to assume you don’t entirely know what even your closest confidants are feeling at any given moment.
What, then, is the antidote to toxic positivity? Are we to out optimism, halt hope, axe auspiciousness? Well, not necessarily. But maybe we can be a little bit more honest.
Being a little bit more honest
It would help, first of all, if we could be open about how we are feeling to ourselves. The most difficult form of toxic positivity to deal with is that which is internalised. It can stem from something seemingly harmless, such as a tendency to attribute lots of value to happiness, or need to block out negativity. Undesirable emotions are an unavoidable reality; it does no good to avoid them at all costs, especially when there is often satisfaction to be gained from deferring immediate happiness.
Strictly speaking, positivity is not the same as happiness – the former is an approach to life while the latter is an emotional state. In this way toxic positivity could be seen as a form of false hope. It’s not that we should avoid happiness, just that we will do ourselves no favours in expecting it. On contrary, we can gain a deeper, stabler sense of happiness when we accept that it is not our default state.
Though perhaps society is quite ready for this kind of truth. Positivity, after all, is not just a widespread cultural custom, but a business, dare I say – a cult. It is apparent in endless lies of politicians, the idealism in marketing, even in our social lives which require us to mask our anxieties for fear of scaring others off. The media we are presented with is full of ‘feel good’ vibes that aim to temporarily distract us from our problems rather than provide a safe outlet for us to deal with them.
Thankfully we don’t need to wait for the world to solve our problems for us. We can start with amending our own attitudes, by admitting that ‘actually, things do suck right now, but this is ok. This is temporary. And even if it is not, it won’t be debilitating.’ In other words, we should learn how to contextualise our worries instead of completely blocking them out. Where possible, we should embrace difficulties, for though they can be painful, they also keep as alive, and charge our desire to improve our situations in a rational way.