The Not-So-Bright Side: Toxic Positivity In The Pandemic

 - Sakshi Post

By Mrudula Akki 

Over the past few months of the pandemic, we have all been the recipients of a barrage of well-intentioned platitudes urging us to be little rays of sunshine under the dark, ugly cloud of COVID-19. Phrases like "don’t worry, be positive, look on the bright side, be strong, be happy….” have been tossed around like candy/confetti to eager kids.

So what is askew with this hugely positive picture of, “I am okay, you are okay, everything is okay”? Psychologists and therapists have always stressed the importance of acknowledging and accepting the range of emotions that we experience. Toxic positivity aims to do just the opposite by urging us to ignore the “negative” feelings that can cause fear, anxiety, stress, sadness and uncertainty. While there is no denying the power of positivity, toxic positivity forces/urges us to

  • brush our emotions under the proverbial carpet (deny your emotions),

  • completely blind-siding the necessity of addressing these painful, negative emotions (avoiding your emotions) and

  • be responsible and “choose” to be happy ( it is your fault for feeling negative emotions).

Toxic positivity is the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. It can take the form of a concerned friend telling you it’s going to be okay, an older, more experienced family member dismissing it as very common and hence not worth moping over, or messages on social media constantly ‘telling’ you to be positive and change your outlook; all of which make person feel

  • Ashamed of their negative emotions

  • Guilty as they are unable to convert these emotions and be positive

  • Stuck and prevent growth, limiting their ability to face challenging feelings that help us grow and develop an insight

Thus, when we are caught in the whirlpool/cesspool of toxic positivity, we lose the opportunity to work through our emotions which helps us make sense of things around us and navigate through relationships, work and our individual experiences. We also end up feeling inadequate which in turn, prevents us from seeking help. Accepting negative emotions enables us to develop healthy coping mechanisms and reduce the intensity of these emotions.

A crucial aspect of understanding emotions is that they are “emotions”. Not good or bad, not all positive or all negative. By not allowing ourselves to experience these negative emotional states, or suppressing them, we run the risk of experiencing harmful physical health conditions. Positive psychologist Tim Lomas’ research has yielded evidence that experiencing anger, fear, sadness, helps a person gain perspective and understanding which in turn enhances long term well-being. We further need to be cautious not to box ourselves into airtight emotional compartments that have been moulded by society to a large extent, and internalised by us. The diktats of how we must feel, when we must feel, to what extent we can emotionally express ourselves can also be detrimental to emotional health and lead to an unrealistically upbeat thinking pattern.

Once we are clear about this, we can avoid toxic positivity by

  1. Acknowledging the negative emotions, and not deny them

  2. Being realistic about what you are feeling – anxiety, fear, stress are normal reactions to the pandemic

  3. Listen to others and validate what they are feeling, without dismissing their emotional experience under a deluge of toxic positivity.

  4. Replace toxic positivity with Practical optimism. Identify what you are going through, talk and share with a friend or family member, and come up with ways in which you can deal with these emotions.

What then, do we say to a person who has experienced loss or trauma during the pandemic without dousing/engulfing them with toxic positivity? Here are some ways of replacing toxic positivity with realistic optimism:

1. You’ll get over it

- “I know things are hard right now, but you are resilient, and will feel better eventually”

2. Other people have it worse

- “You are not alone, how can I support you?”

3. Just stay positive

- “It is normal to feel upset right now, do you want to talk about it?”

4. Don’t worry, be happy

- “Take your time to work through your emotions”

5. Being negative won’t help

- “It is important to let it out, is there anything I can do to make it easier?”

It is time to stop burying your head in the sand, hold your head up, look the emotion in the eye, and take it by the horns. Practical optimism, not toxic positivity!

The author is a consultant Psychologist based out of Hyderabad. Shoot your questions to mrudula.counsellor @gmail.com

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