During COVID-19, sentences like “Everything is OK!” “Look on the bright side!” and the infamous “Everything happens for a reason,” have been more prominent. Especially since we have been unable to see people in person, these messages have swarmed social media and have increased how much we have seen this type of content.
But sentences that call for constant positivity are toxic.
According to Heather Monroe, the director of program development at Newport Institute, toxic positivity is “the belief that if we ignore difficult emotions and the parts of our life that aren’t working as well, we’ll be much happier.” Although many people enjoy seeing people be their optimistic selves and unbridled positivity might sound harmless, it can often make people feel unheard and invalidated.
Do you recall a time when you are so mad that you just want to throw something and break it? Then imagine someone coming up and telling you to calm down and expecting you to do so. Immediately — poof — all of your initial angry emotions disappeared! Yeah, that never happens. It can’t, and shouldn’t, happen.
People are allowed their feelings — especially in a moment of unhappiness. We all want to feel better, right? And oftentimes we try to inflict that want of positivity onto others, but for those who are struggling with mental health or have known someone who had COVID-19, sayings like these can invalidate their situation.
According to a 2020 survey by the University of Chicago, 60% of Americans now suffer from new mental health issues. Covering up our feelings by using toxic positivity against ourselves for the benefit of people who want us to be positive can cause avoidance coping. Avoidance coping, defined by psychology professor Rozel Paulino, are “Efforts (that) are not meant to address the cause of the problem head-on.” Not addressing issues can create an elephant in the room by putting a mask on your emotions rather than simply acknowledging them.
Matthew Brooks wrote, “Relationships like trauma characteristics often appear to be explained through the presence of avoidant coping strategies, intrusive thoughts, and the individual’s social environment to promote positive change.” But how can we break that down? Not only does avoidance coping — using toxic positivity on yourself — create trauma, but so does the use of toxic positivity from others.
When consoling others sometimes we feel the immediate want for people to be happy during grieving stages. The five common grieving stages guide humans through a tough situation, naturally. When grieving, oftentimes we feel the need to reach out to others to feel validated. A person might resort to toxic positivity to help comfort the person grieving. However by telling someone who is grieving, directly or indirectly, to be positive is quite literally asking the person to skip from stage 2, anger, all the way to acceptance, the last stage. Although everyone goes through the grieving process in their own way, this jump is practically impossible. It’s still good to feed in positive thoughts and self-care actions, but to pretend that these negative emotions don’t exist is unnatural.
To put things simply, allowing people to feel how they want to feel is healthy. I myself, find it hard to refrain from saying sentences like “I’m not sure what I can do to support you, but I am sure everything will be fine soon,” and “It could have been worse, right?”
These statements have almost become habitual to me. This habit comes from the want to see everyone happy. However, the personal want of others to be happy is saying that, no matter how they want to feel, they should just be happy because you want them to be so.
Toxic positivity is so normalized and often viewed as a good thing which makes it a hard to break away from mentally and practicing different solutions can be beneficial to sweat off the habit.
Vanessa Van Edwards, a behavioral investigator, recommends swapping out different sentences like, “Don’t be so negative,” and “Don’t worry about it,” to “This must be hard; tell me about it.” By changing up these sentences, we opt for comfort in the environment we create for those who are unhappy.
As humans, we’d prefer to be positive rather than negative and push these negative feelings aside to try to make our situation better. The Mayo Clinic recommends using humor to lighten your situation to naturally and indirectly increase positivity without shoving negative emotions aside.
They mentioned in a 2019 article that, “A good laugh has great short-term effects. When you start to laugh, it doesn’t just lighten your load mentally, it actually induces physical changes in your body.” While our instinct is to distract us from negative thoughts, to laugh about them or different events in our lives can create a natural, positive outlook.
Looking back at the not-so-positive parts of social media, being a positive influence by accepting the negative sides of people’s lives will provide a better environment for you and others. That way we work towards not ingraining this mentality of toxic positivity onto unsuspecting others.
Sometimes our life takes turns, and it’s hard to be positive. So, the next time you are on social media, remember it’s OK if your feed isn’t so positive all the time.