There is an unfortunate stigma surrounding not being positive. After all, who wants to be around a Debbie Downer? No one!
When forced to play a role that is not genuine, though, we are doing possibly mental and emotional damage to ourselves that can be lasting. We might also be conditioning ourselves to be avoidant, suppressive, or even in denial about our own experience.
You can – and should – be encouraged to persevere, but we also need to be true to ourselves.
“I like to explain to clients that they need to embrace, but not get consumed with, their experience,” said Justin Baksh, LMHC, MCAP, Chief Executive Officer of Foundations Wellness Center. “If you are in a situation where you continuously have to be fake in order to feel accepted, then you are not allowing your mind. body, and spirit to heal in its natural state.”
As the saying goes, “Everything in moderation.” Even too much of a good thing can be bad for you, and toxic positivity fits that bill.
“Toxic positivity, in my perspective, is living in denial, or even being ambivalent to the need to look at the reality of the situation,” Baksh explained. “You are purposefully putting the blinders on to avoid a certain scenario. Blissful ignorance might also be interpreted by others as toxic positivity.”
Is the Coronavirus Contributing to Toxic Positivity?
The coronavirus is causing us to be more isolated. We are being required to seek alternate forms of not only work, but fun as well.
That’s why screen time has skyrocketed, becoming more prevalent than ever before – whether it be spreadsheet creation for your employer, social media scrolling, Netflix binge-watching, video game playing or something else.
We can all think of fellow employees, family members, and friends who are consumed by the pandemic on a subconscious level. They are trying their best, but the frustration and irritation of a loss of normal routine is wearing on them.
After all, working from home, preparing and eating meals from home (or having them delivered to your home), entertaining yourself at home… it can be monotonous.
At the end of the day, we can feel as if we are left in our heads.
That’s not the best place to be sometimes – especially if it’s unchecked, unchallenged, or unmonitored.
How Social Media Plays into Toxic Positivity
A big part of our screen time is dominated by social media, which, unfortunately, can amplify the effects of toxic positivity.
Social media doesn’t give you an accurate view of others or their experience. It’s distorted to be overwhelmingly positive, unrealistic and biased… and it’s coming at you in a constant, unending stream.
“With social media, we see people’s lives through literal ‘filters,’ in some cases. It looks good on the other side – our side – but we only see what they are projecting, and not the whole truth,” Baksh shared. “We can find ourselves asking, ‘What’s wrong with me?’”
How many times have you heard people say, “Their life looks perfect online! They are always traveling, eating out, just living this great life?” Toxic positivity on social media is a form of hypocrisy. The message is, “Look at me being or acting one way,” but when you see or interact with that person in real life, they can be totally different. Right now, with real, face-to-face interaction severely cut down or eliminated, we are only getting one side of the story.
And that’s too bad, because, as Baksh advises, “You should never compare your insides to someone else’s (carefully curated) outsides.”
Recognizing Toxic Positivity
Human interactions occur on a continuum, between deeply authentic (raw, open, or vulnerable) on one end and purely superficial (i.e., perfunctory, surface-level, even fake) on another.
You can recognize whether you are engaging in toxic positivity by asking yourself: “Does this feel genuine? Does this situation feel sincere? Do I feel coerced, angry, or irritated?” If you are experiencing negative effects from engaging in positive outlooks, thoughts, or actions, then you might have a problem with toxic positivity.
On the other end, if you feel irritated by an overly cheerful person or excessively positive statements from another, that also counts as toxic positivity exposure. For example, when someone puts an overly positive spin on a bad situation, the lack of candor may rub you the wrong way. Instead of feeling uplifted, which arguably was the intention of the person expressing positivity, you feel angry or miffed. This can also be counterproductive in our lives.
Coping with Toxic Positivity
Knowing all of this, how do you cope?
1. Realize that you are not alone! While toxic positivity can always be a problem, we are all especially feeling a sense of disruption, disheveled-ness, and discombobulation now, thanks to the coronavirus.
You may feel as if you are the only one dealing with a wave of negative emotions, but you are not. This isolation is leading to a resurfacing of addiction, the onset of depression and anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts and actions for too many people.
It’s a simple equation of cause and effect. But it’s not hopeless. There are healthy ways to deal with what is happening in the world today.
2. Put some distance between yourself and the people who are inciting this distress in you (although there may be no ill intention on the part of those people). This can give you time to process your emotions and gain perspective on the situation. Time truly does heal all wounds. Similarly, if you feel depressed, saddened, or envious from Facebook or Instagram scrolling, it may be time to disengage from social media until you are in a better state of mind.
3. Try to get back into your normal routines to cope with coronavirus anxiety. Or, committing to modified ones that keep you and your loved ones safe.
“My wife, daughter and I love the ocean. We can’t go there as easily anymore, so we try to find alternatives that will still capture the same feelings,” said Baksh. “For example, we will drive up or down the coastline. We still get the sights and sounds – admittedly, not the same as toes in the sand – but a compromise that keeps us safe and not anxious. It’s just the right amount of positive thinking that can keep you away from the toxic stuff.”
4. Remain true to yourself. The easiest way to get overwhelmed, anxious, or stuck in a depressive mood is to try and live up to what we feel are someone else’s expectations of us. There can be a gap between what we feel others expect and what they actually do expect, however.
Case in point: people actually like us better if we aren’t Polly Positive all the time.
Research tells us that expressing negative emotion can led to positive outcomes. A triad of studies published in the March 2008 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin show that expressing negative emotion led to:
- Having more friends
- Obtaining more help and support from others
- Building new and close relationships
- Greater intimacy in already-close relationships
5. Seek outside help. In all things, there should be a balance. While it’s a part of the normal, human experience to not to feel positive all the time, there can be deeper issues at work.
It’s ok to express negative emotions; however, if you find yourself exclusively doing so, that may point to a deeper problem – perhaps untreated depression or anxiety. If this is the case for you, reach out to a psychologist or psychiatrist in your immediate area. These conditions are treatable, as many Americans can attest.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, seek immediate help. If you’re unsure where to call, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a national hotline at (800) 662-HELP that is available 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
If you have relapsed due to an addiction, find a qualified drug or alcohol rehab near you that can help. Often, the admissions lines for these facilities run 24 hours. If you have no insurance and money is an issue, be up-front about it. The outreach representative can most likely point the way to low-cost or free substance abuse resources in your area.
How Strength is Built
Above all, be authentic and true to yourself. The more that you can do this in everyday life, the better you will feel.
As you successfully face negative situations and challenges, you build resiliency that will serve as a natural protection against toxic positivity and all of life’s bumps in the road.
You will also build wisdom to know that this, too, shall pass, and one day be just a part of the story of your life. Better days are undoubtedly ahead.