Decoding "positivity" and its dreaded cousin "toxic positivity"

Understanding how to differentiate between positivity and toxic positivity
Here's how toxic positivity can affect you
Here's how toxic positivity can affect youImage: The Bridge Chronicle

Remember the time when Instagram was all about

"Good vibes only"

"Don't kill my vibe"

"Look at the bright side"

Especially the influencer community took it up to themselves, that people were either hopeful of better days or nothing.

The years after 2015 saw an influx of "Good Vibes" all over the internet. A wave of promoting positivity took over and nothing else was tolerated. It almost became a way of life, where people were supposed to believe that "everything will be ok" or accept what was happening by saying, "it could be worst" and anything otherwise was completely shunned.

This kind of forced positivity was almost a compulsion to view life as a series of positive events, followed by being hopeful about the positive times to come. However, no matter how well-intended the trend was soon people realised that life is not always flowers and gardens. A just like two positives make a negative — This form of forced positivity is a kind of denial of reality and not helpful at all. Leaning towards a form of toxicity.

To understand toxic positivity better, let us first take a look at healthy positivity. Dr Beth Cabrera a TEDx speaker and author defines positivity as "Positivity is the frequent experience of pleasant emotions. Some of the most common are: joy, hope, gratitude, interest, serenity, pride, amusement, love, inspiration, and awe." She explains that positivity is not an absence of negative emotions or bad events. Obviously, bad events are bound to happen. But research in positivity indicates that positivity can be best experienced when the ratio of positive-to-negative emotions is at least 3-to-1.

However, the trend of forced positivity only disrupts the ideal ratio; somewhere becoming toxic. But what is toxic positivity? Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. Especially in trying times. It's a compulsive form of "good vibes only" approach to life.

The line between positivity and toxic positivity is rather slim. For example in situations such as now, when the world is facing a pandemic, thinking about good thoughts becomes difficult. Even engaging yourself in good thoughts is difficult because you are surrounded by grim news. However, even now, there is an explosion of positivity that expects people to believe, "better days are coming". Which to come think of it is not untrue. But, toxic positivity takes every event or incident to an overgeneralised level. And also minimalises our ability to deal with human emotions that are not necessarily positive. It surely helps when we are surrounded by such uncertainty. Yet, accepting that we are living through some tough times is equally important.

Even when it comes to slots not being available for vaccination, the ministry has been asking people to be calm and wait for the slots to become available. Especially the extension of the gap between the vaccines, or promoting the largest vaccination drive is all a form of toxic positivity where the government is only looking at how largescale the vaccination drive is without addressing the fact that India does not have enough vaccines for its citizens.

But how do you identify toxic positivity from positivity? The Bridge Chronicle looks into the different signs of identifying toxic positivity and why is it harmful.

Signs of toxic positivity

As mentioned earlier, the line between positivity and toxic positivity is often very slim. Having an optimistic and positive outlook towards life is essential. However, drawing the line at the right time is also important to not become toxic. Here are some signs to identify toxic positivity.

  1. Avoiding facing problems: When you avoid facing problems and rather tell yourself everything is fine, it shows an inability to accept that there is a problem.

  2. Feeling guilty about being sad, angry, or disappointed: It is okay to not feel okay all the time. Some days are difficult and things around you can take a toll on you. Though it is important to be mentally strong, it is also important to accept that on some days, it is perfectly fine to be unhappy.

  3. Hiding how you feel behind socially accepted norms: If you feel expressing your true emotions will attract flak from your friend and hence you resort to reading motivational, feel-good quotes. You aren't being true to yourself.

  • Hiding your true feelings: You don't need to share how you truly feel at all times, but it is also not necessary to be feeling good at all times. People often try to portrait themselves as being extremely happy all the time and hide their true feelings on the inside. It used to be considered a sign of strength. But is now being realised as a form of toxic positivity.

  • Generalising toxic behaviour by asking the other person to be positive: To uplift and motivate is one thing. But generalising toxic, whimsical behaviour by asking the other person to be positive is toxic positivity.

Why is toxic positivity harmful?

While positivity can help people in dealing with difficult times, toxic positivity does the exact opposite. While people can find comfort in positivity, toxic positivity leads to people's emotions being dismissed, ignored or invalidated.

1. It's shaming: When someone is in pain, they need to realise that their feelings are legitimate and that despite the pain they will find comfort and love in their friends and relatives. Toxic positivity, on the other hand, tells people that their feelings are incorrect.

2. It causes guilt: It sends the message that you're doing something wrong if you can't find a way to be happy, even in the face of disaster.

3. It avoids authentic human emotion: Toxic positivity serves as a defence mechanism. When some partake in this sort of behaviour, they can escape uncomfortable interpersonal situations. However, often we internalise these poisonous thoughts and turn them on ourselves. We underestimate, ignore, and reject troublesome feelings as they arise.

4. It prevents growth: It helps us to escape uncomfortable emotions while still denying us the opportunity to confront difficult feelings that can lead to the development and deeper understanding.

Though positive vibes only mantra was fairing well for most people, it soon became a compulsion. Weathering tough times with a positive attitude is important, but it is important to also know to draw a line. Especially, during the pandemic, people face hardships such as lockdowns, business shutdowns, and loss of sources of income. Staying positive in such times is difficult, and it is necessary that we do not force toxic positivity on them.

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