Toxic Positivity: Why “Just Think Happy Thoughts” Is Not The Best Response To Someone Who’s Feeling Discouraged
It’s counterproductive and harmful, according to experts.
For most of us, 2020 was one h*ck of a year. We have colleagues who lost their jobs, friends who lost their loved ones, and family members who are constantly worried about being at risk for the virus. Unfortunately, the constant state of worry and anxiety has become our “normal” for more than a year now, and along with it, the feeling of hopelessness.
You’ve heard it before, but we’ll say it again: It’s okay to not feel okay. The whole world is experiencing a crisis, and we can feel it even in the imagined world of happy vibes and glitter that is social media. It is normal to take time to process things, and the “just think happy thoughts” advice just isn’t going to cut it. Toxic positivity isn’t going to cut it.
If you’re wondering what “toxic positivity” is, it is the “overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state that results in the denial, minimization and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience,” according to The Psychology Group.
If, after sharing an authentic, vulnerable, negative emotion, you have received “Just look on the bright side!” or “It could be worse” as a response, then you have experienced the toxic “good vibes only” approach to life.
This cultural phenomenon has been especially rampant on social media during the COVID-19 lockdown. “We are being bombarded with ideas about how this time should be used to write a novel, learn a new language, and find our zen and that we are somehow failing if we are not doing these things,” says board-certified psychiatrist Margaret Seide, MD.
“They can make anyone who doesn’t view this period as an eight-week yoga retreat feel flawed. These messages delegitimize the anxiety and heartbreak ripping through our country and the world right now, robbing us of the right to have bad days in the midst of this crisis.”
Anelle, 25, lost her job during the early days of the lockdown. Being the breadwinner of her family, she felt worried and anxious that her savings would only last them a couple of months. “S’yempre, ang una kong nilapitan ay ‘yung friends ko kasi ayoko mag-worry ‘yung family ko,” she says. “But after sharing a heartfelt message, ang sabi nila sa akin ay ‘ano ka ba, buti nga may savings ka. Just be grateful!’”
This type of response made Anelle feel guilty for having authentic human emotions, which made her dismiss and deny them. “Ilang months din akong nagpanggap on social media. Kunyari productive, nakakapag-exercise, nakakanood ng Netflix. I felt pressured to make it seem like I’m okay.”
Kaye, 21, had difficulty adjusting to online classes. Since the virtual learning set-up was implemented, Kaye and her fellow students had three times more projects, assignments, and homework. “I can’t deny that this set-up doesn’t help me learn. May global pandemic na, tapos ang nasa isip ko pa rin ay ‘yung requirements na kailangan ko ipasa.”
At one point, the pressure to comply became unbearable and Kaye shared her worries with a family member. “I felt worse instead of better. Kapag sinabihan ka ng ‘Ang swerte-swerte mo nga nakakapag-aral ka, ‘wag ka masyado mareklamo,’ s’yempre maiisip mo na tama nga naman sila, I am really lucky to have this opportunity. Pero at the same time, am I not allowed to feel sad and pressured?”
A 1997 study showed that suppression of emotional discomfort can cause even more internal and psychological stress. This can lead to anxiety, depression, and worsening of your mental health.
This means that if you’re pushing the “positive vibes only” mantra on other people, chances are, it can make them feel shame or guilt for having negative feelings. This invalidates their emotions and may lead to even more negative emotions. The only difference is that this time around, they might keep it to themselves, and that’s dangerous.
People were faced with massive disruptions and changes in the past year, and the pressure to stay productive and positive despite the trauma brought by this pandemic is extremely difficult and damaging.
Of course, it is possible to be optimistic in the face of adversity. In fact, if you are productive and happy, that’s amazing! However, people who went through difficult experiences do not need to be told to “just be grateful” or feel like they are being judged for not maintaining a sunny attitude all the time.
Here’s a gentle reminder that not everyone is on the same boat during this difficult time, and others may not cope the same way you do. If someone deems us trustworthy enough to share their feelings with, let’s learn to listen and validate their emotions.
If you ever find yourself having negative emotions, welcome them, acknowledge them, and sit with them. It might sound ironic, but this is an effective way for us to process them better.
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. It’s okay to feel exhausted. It’s okay to not be okay.
Your feelings are valid. You are valid. And there is no shame in asking for help.
If you need someone to listen, call the National Mental Health Crisis Hotlines at 0917-899-8727, (02) 7989-8727 or 1553 (toll-free landline) anytime, 24/7.
You may also call hotlines 0917-8001123 or (02) 8893-7603 for free telephone counseling in the Philippines.