Why Positivity Isn’t Always a Good Thing
So! Positive people: don’t you just hate them?
Wait: that was a bit negative even for me, wasn’t it? Let’s start this one again…
Look, I get it: some people like to see the best in everything and everyone. They like to continue to be positive no matter what, and they adopt those words as their mantra, believing that if you can just be positive then everything will be so much better. The smug gits. They don’t do this in order to be annoying, obviously: they do it because it helps them – and because they believe it will help you, too.
But what about when it doesn’t?
What about when all this relentless positivity does is make you feel even worse than you do already? What about those times when something truly awful happens, but Positive Pam over there tells you that “Everything happens for a reason!” (What reason could possibly be good enough, though, PAM? HUH?) What about when you just really need to vent to someone who understands, but all you get is a bunch of platitudes about how you “Just have to look on the bright side!” What about when there IS no ‘bright side’?
That’s when positivity becomes toxic.
That’s when it becomes annoying.
That’s when it can even start to be dangerous: because, when someone needs your support, but all you’ve got for them is the reminder to be positive at all costs, because someone else has it worse, you’re not actually helping, are you? No, all you’re really doing is shutting them down: which isn’t very positive, really, is it?
This is something that’s been on my mind a lot, lately: mostly because it occurred to me that the main thing holding me back when it comes to blogging / social media right now isn’t the fear of trolling, or negativity, but the thought of all of that toxic positivity I know will be coming my way if I dare to be truly honest. Who wants to open up to the internet, after all, knowing there’s a good chance they’re just going to be shut right back down again with a giant dose of It Could Be Worse or an unhelpful reminder to Look on the Bright Side? Why would I post something on Instagram when I know I’ll get a flurry of messages which are supposed to make me feel better, but which actually just make me feel like I’ve been (very politely) told to shut up?
The people who say these things mean well, obviously. That doesn’t mean their words can’t be toxic, though. Positivity, for instance, becomes toxic when…
– It encourages people to believe that their feelings aren’t valid and that they’re wrong or stupid for having them.
– It takes a scolding tone, which has the effect of belittling the person you’re trying to deliver your “uplifting” message to.
– It diminishes problems or feelings which are absolutely valid, and which require empathy, not hectoring.
– It makes people afraid to open up and be totally honest about how they’re really feeling, for fear or being scolded for being “too negative”.
– It convinces people that it would be silly to ask for actual, practical help (Which, in some cases, might be badly needed…), when the power of positive thinking is all they really need.
Refinery 29 recently described toxic positivity as “unintentional gaslighting”, which I think is an interesting way of looking at it: instead of the intended effect of making the person feel better about whatever it is they’re dealing with, it actually just makes them question their own response to it, and feel like they’re somehow in the wrong for feeling the way they do – even when those feelings are totally normal and valid.
Of course, it’s important to say here that not all positivity is toxic. Sometimes it’s helpful. Sometimes it’s appropriate. Sometimes it’s just the kick in the backside you need to help you dig your way out of whatever deep, dark hole you’ve found yourself in, and gain some much-needed perspective.
But not always.
Increasingly these days, I find myself more in need of empathy than “inspiration”: of understanding rather than pep-talks . More and more often, I find myself writing blog posts, and then deleting them without ever publishing them, for fear of the negativity shaming that’s become commonplace when someone posts something that doesn’t have a glib, “inspirational” message attached to it somewhere.
People mean well: of course they do. But I can’t help feel that the constant insistence on positivity NO MATTER WHAT is – if I can be super-dramatic for a moment – robbing us of our humanity a little bit. It’s teaching us to believe that normal, human emotions are actually a bit strange, and maybe even shameful. It’s making us lose our empathy and compassion, and I suspect it’s probably making it harder for people to open up and ask for support if they know they’re just going to be told that their feelings are invalid, and should be repressed at all costs.
So, how do you avoid making your natural positivity toxic to other people?
Listen. Try not to judge. Remember that everyone is different, and that something that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you could feel like the end of the world to someone else. Don’t play Tragedy Olympics: we’re all in this together and while there will always, always be someone worse off, we’re all entitled to feel however we feel about it. Above all, empathise, empathise, empathise: because sometimes all a person needs is to be heard, and to know that someone cares – so be that person, rather than the one who insists that normal human emotions be hidden, conquered or repressed.
It’s OK to not be OK all the time: and it’s OK to not be 100% positive all the time, too. Especially in times like these…