How to avoid pushing toxic positivity during a global pandemic.

2020 has been quite the adventure of a year. With a global health pandemic shutting down businesses, putting people out of work, and changing the routine of people all over the world… all while global protests about the police violence in the United States and Canada pulling back the veil on the racism against Black people in our “first world” countries, it is only normal to be experiencing challenges with heavy emotions and mental health. 

Read that again. It is normal. It is also OKAY to feel sad/anxious/worried/angry or whatever feeling you feel that society has labeled as “negative”. 

As social media has taken a shift from sharing brunch, beach dates and fancy coffees, to quarantine struggles and Black Lives Matter advocacy posts, I have really noticed the divide between the people who are supportive of people’s experiences and emotions, and the people who are pushing toxic positivity.

The phrase “toxic positivity” refers to the idea that being positive is the way only way to live. Quoted from a Psychology Today article, Dr Lucan defines toxic positivity as the “concept that keeping positive and keeping positive ONLY is the right way to live your life. It means only focusing on positive things and rejecting anything that may trigger negative emotions” So where is the line between genuine positivity and TOXIC positivity?

Being genuinely positive, in my opinion, is living a life where you wake up every day trying your best to approach new experiences with a positive mindset and hoping for the best. Studies on positivity have linked being positive to positive psychological health (ex: positive emotions, life satisfaction, positive relationships, life purpose), and there is potential that it may even improve physical health. However, just like too much of anything, we can try to be TOO positive, and when this happens we end up silencing the true human experience of emotions. 

Humans are not programmed to be happy ALL THE TIME. Think back to when you were a child, or if you have children think about them. They aren’t always happily chatting away, singing, dancing or joyful… they often scream, cry, yell, get angry and say NO. And when people reject those upset feelings, children will either become more upset, or may unconsciously learn to silence those emotions around those people. When we silence the “negative” emotions; when we bury the pain, the trauma, the fear/anxiety, the anger that we feel, we are creating a problem for future us. Negative experiences and emotions don’t go away with silence, they get stuffed into a closet that will continue to be filled until it explodes. If you are someone that rejects your own negative feelings because you believe in the “good vibes only” motto that is popular amongst many social media accounts, yoga influencers etc, you may also start to come across as someone who doesn’t have negative feelings. And whether this is true or not, you become less approachable or relatable and people won’t feel like they can connect with you when they are experiencing their own heavy life experiences or emotions.

Let’s use a simple example to start – toxic positivity on social media. Social media has a “positive vibes only” feel to it. If you scroll through your newsfeed you’ll only see people at the peak of their joy – with friends, on vacation (pre-COVID), with their “perfect” relationships… because we don’t post those hard times because society makes us think that those are not worth sharing. And if we do post them, we often receive comments that may include “at least….” or “look on the bright side.” During this quarantine and during the last month in which police violence and murders have brought the issue of racism into the spotlight, I have scrolled through so many “positive vibes only” and “all we need is love” feeling instagram pages and posts, and experienced the feeling of toxic positivity on my own “negative” emotion posts in the lack of comments on my more “negative” posts vs my cute relationship or aesthetic posts. “Does instagram even matter though Kristina” you might ask… and in the grand scheme of things, no of course not…. but when you are constantly made to feel that you are wrong for not feeling happy, or that you’re the only one not “living life to the fullest”, then YES it matters!

Life is challenging, even more so right now where we are living in this unknown time. We need to stick together, support each other and accept people for who they are INCLUDING the messy stuff. Whether you are as anxious or stressed as your friends and family about the coronavirus pandemic, whether you are as angry, sad, or invested in the fight against racism as the people in your large circles, it’s important to be sensitive to their emotions and validate them.

How to be genuine and supportive in your circles
  1. Be an active listener instead of an action hero – you are NOT the main character in people’s lives. You don’t need to be the hero when people are having a hard time. Most people experiencing a hard time will be looking for someone to listen to them so they can release their emotions through their words, NOT for people to find them solutions.
  2. Hold space when people come to you in hard situations – allow the person to have whatever feelings they need to feel and ask they how they need you to show up for them in this moment – ex: do they need to rant with you just listening, do they need silence, do they need a distraction (like a tv show, going for ice cream), do they need physical contact, help finding a solution etc. We are all different and deal with our “negative” emotions differently, so let them show you what they need
  3. Don’t “silver lining” things – telling someone to be positive or find the silver lining when they are anxious about the state of the world, mourning the loss of their work routines, frustrated and angry about their experiences with racism (or whatever else they’re talking about) is like telling them that their emotions are invalid and there is something wrong with them for feeling a certain way. Whatever they are experiencing is real and their emotions are valid. If you can’t put yourself in their shoes, you can still be empathetic…. check out Brene Brown’s video on Empathy (one of my favourites) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw
  4. Be open to learning about and changing toxic positivity habits – you might not even realize that you are engaging in toxic positivity! That is okay, as long as you are willing to be open to learning and changing to be better. If any of these statements below sound like things you might have said in the past, I recommend you do a bit of reading into how else toxic positivity might show up in your life. Perhaps try reaching out to some friends to see how they’re REALLY doing. Minimize posting on social media encouraging people to be positive and “thankful” during this time when people collectively are experiencing hardships on top of their potential individual hardships (you can do it once in a while but if you do it very often it seems like thankfulness and positivity is the only option). Try exploring some of your own negative thoughts and emotions – is there stuff that you are trying to push down in the name of positive vibes? And lastly be open to hard conversations with friends, whether its about your own emotions, the emotions of your loved ones, or emotional topics such as racism, homophobia etc

Just like most things that we are taught by society as children, toxic positivity is ingrained, and is a topic that requires constant learning, reflecting on our thoughts, emotions and behaviours, and making changes. Be patient, be open, and be willing to grow.

****While it is normal to feel some sort of heavy or “negative” feeling during this time, if you are feeling overwhelming feelings, please reach out to talk to a professional. Feel free to message me personally if you need help finding the help you might need xo

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Published by maiiflowerr

Pronouns She/Her. I'm a millennial just trying to make a difference in the world, and create space for people to accept themselves and live their best lives. My fiancee, Sydney, and I are mothers to our two goofy cats, and the queens of creative adventures. I am an Occupational therapist, a dancer and a yoga instructor with a passion for supporting people and creating community.

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