Toxic Positivity

I am a Positive Soul, but I am not entrenched or promote toxic positivity.

Recently, I came across a figure that astounded me. As of 2018, the global Wellness Industry is at an estimated 4.5 trillion dollars. The Wellness Industry is combined of categories that promote mental and physical health. It ranges from healthy-eating, yoga, personal care, nutrition, workplace wellness and wellness tourism.

Likely, a majority of these companies, individuals and influencers within this industry have good intentions when it comes to their products and services for their clients. What I mean is, most psychologists aren’t going to delay treatment of their client to make a few extra thousand in fees.

But what is even more likely, is in this day and age of influencers and number games, people are being bought back with the promise of something more if they can achieve this. Wherein lies my exploration of toxic positivity.

Positivity and Toxic Positivity

The practice of being in a particularly optimistic attitude is positivity. In all of our lives, we have been told to ‘keep up the positive attitude’ or ‘you’re not going to get anywhere if you think negative like that’.

I use the phrase ‘let’s keep going’. I don’t use it to say that the people I’m talking to or I am not doing enough or have stopped moving forward. It is a phrase for encouragement and often after a lengthy discussion that has validated and explored my own, or the person’s emotions and experience.

When I am doing my own shadow work or listening to a friend, I always try to listen and validate emotions and experiences. In high school, when I wasn’t heard, or I was invalidated by my parents and my teachers, my anxiety and depression worsened.

I do believe in positivity. Positivity is good because it is linked to better physical and emotional wellbeing and lower stress levels. However, I believe that positivity must be matched to the circumstance. That is, if someone you loved died, you don’t need to cheer up about it – you need to walk through the stages of grief.

Toxic positivity is the idea (and movement) that we should live our days with one emotion – positivity. It is the idea that by ignoring all other emotions, we will be much happier. As an expression, toxic positivity is to turn a blind eye.

We are complex beings who can multitask, give birth, fall in love, have affairs. We can produce and suppress emotions at the same time. Toxic positivity takes our emotional complexity and simplifies it, ironically, hurting out mental health.

The Consequences of Social Media

The largest global social media platforms are breeding grounds for marketing and advertising. I use affiliate links to a Fitness app. I have the link for two reasons; I use the app in my everyday life, and I need to make money.

A condition of this life is that we have to work, make money, and pay bills. So, it makes sense that most of us are quite frugal or smart about where our playtime and spending money goes. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with using platforms to make money and earn passive income. However, over the past four years since my mental health journey, I have needed to detox from these platforms.

I reflected on why I needed to detox from these platforms and came to the conclusion that it was because the majority of these platforms only show one side of the coin. Let’s take the classic weight example. At 28, I do not physically look like other 28 year olds on Instagram. I don’t have my life together like they appear to either.

It took me a long time to understand that most of us (including myself) only share what makes us happy, and/or what makes us money (don’t buy that detox tea). While there is nothing inherently wrong with only sharing parts of ourselves that make us happy, as consumers, we forget that people posting this content are also experiencing emotional experiences that they aren’t sharing.

Especially in this time of the pandemic, we are being shovelled with inspiration and motivation that sometimes feels like contempt for not learning a new language, transforming our houses, healing ourselves. While those are all admirable goals to have, when it is all that is being said to us, it becomes toxic positivity.

Repressing Ourselves

I wondered why there was no accountability for toxic positivity advertising and posts. I realised because these campaigns put the responsibility on the consumer.

Toxic positivity promotes the idea that you can feel happier if you think more positively. When I first started my journey on spirituality, one of the very first things that popped up everywhere on algorithms and word of mouth was the ‘The Secret’. I remember watching it and thinking, Wow! I’ve been doing it wrong for so long.

While I do believe in the Universe, from my mental health journey, I know that only I can help myself. I know that I can talk to the Universe and ask for things, but I must take action. I know that mental health issues and medical conditions cannot be fixed with thinking positive.

This idea that thinking positive will help us heal makes us our own worst enemy. We don’t take accountability for not actioning change in our lives, we blame ourselves for not thinking positive enough.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think I was equipped to deal with toxic positivity in my teens and in my early 20’s. What I knew then was that I was overwhelmed with anxiety and depression, and I wasn’t going to have support from anyone if I wasn’t thinking positive about my situation. Being positive became a condition of the support I received, which was toxic positivity.

That was a huge problem and hindered my healing for further years. When we have mental health issues, we need to be learning how to deal with our emotions – whatever they are. If we are in harmful environments that are abusive, action needs to be taken to strengthen us to leave the situation and not to think positively and stay in the environment.

Challenging Toxic Positivity

One of the first things my psychologist taught me to deal with my emotions was to meditate. It definitely wasn’t for me in the beginning. I remember arguing with my psychologist that I couldn’t relax in my house to meditate. Her counter was to go outside. I said that outside was too loud. She told me to wear headphones. Meditation is accessible, and a practise that you will thank yourself for learning.

There are a plethora of coping strategies you can utilise to challenge toxic positivity. Here are my top 4 suggestions-

1. Permission

The first step is to sit with yourself and give yourself permission to experience both positive and negative emotions. This might be in the simple ‘yes and…’ exercise. ‘I am grateful for the roof over my head, and I really hated work today.’ We are not pure beings, and we can have a positive and negative experience at the same time. 

combating toxic positivity
combating toxic positivity

2. Unfollow

You are under no obligation to keep following people. This applies to companies, influencers, friends, family, and whoever else you follow. You are also under no obligation to share what you don’t want. If you don’t want to delete or deactivate your social media, then I suggest spending some time going through all the people you follow.

  • Does this person make me feel that I have to be happy all the time?
  • Do I feel jealous that I am not where this person is in life?
  • Do I get angry when I see this person’s success?

3. Journal

I have been journaling for the majority of my life but have journalled every day for more than a year. In my journal, I express gratitude, which is different from positivity. Expressing gratitude helps us to recognise what we have in our lives and takes us away from feelings of lack. I’ve created a Diary Template that follows my morning routine. Journaling and expressing gratitude can help you understand your mental health.

coping skills
toxic positivity

4. Commit

This is going to look different for everyone. It could be going to a mental health clinic, or it could be just deactivating social media for a while. It is probably going to be seeking the help of a professional. 

To change is to grow, and it is uncomfortable

I wrote about healing in this post here. I said, ‘When we grow, we are undoubtedly progressing. Progressing comes with the connotation of good – moving forward. Progressing is the idea that we are headed in the right direction.’

Unfortunately, with the cycle that is toxic positivity, we are headed in a circle. We might not have a choice about what people share, but we can control what we consume.

Identifying that we need help, actioning change by seeking professional assistance for ourselves and not because it was promoted to us, is a way of breaking free from toxic positivity and progressing with healing.

But to do that, we must first recognise what toxic positivity we engage with within our lives. For me, I ask myself the same three questions above:

  • Does this person make me feel that I have to be happy all the time?
  • Do I feel jealous that I am not where this person is in life?
  • Do I get angry when I see this person’s success?

Answering these questions are major signals that I have to work on a few things. I take note of what triggered me, and I sit with my journal and write it out to work it out. If I can’t do that, I block or unfollow the person and bring it up first thing when I see my psychologist.

I encourage you to keep going.

Do you struggle with toxic positivity? How do you combat it?

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