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The Negatives of Being Positive
Kaitlyn McQuin explores toxic positivity and its detriment on our mental health
The last thing anyone wants to hear when they’re feeling low is to practice gratitude or focus on how good you have it.
“I’m really stressed at work.”
“You should be grateful you have a job.”
Uh, okay. Thanks, Shannon. I instantly feel less stressed now.
Contrary to some people’s belief, the opposite of stress is not gratitude, therefore reminding someone just how grateful they should be for their job does not take away the stress they feel. The opposite of stress is not being stressed, and because we are in the year 2020, not being stressed just isn’t an option. So, can we stop blindly telling people that an abundance of positivity is the answer when an abundance of positivity actually solves nothing?
Positivity is the opposite of a solution, actually – it’s the problem.
Toxic positivity is making its way through social media, but that isn’t where it got its start. If you’re anything like me, an American raised in the south, then you’ve been told to “count your blessings” since day one. But, of course, this doesn’t only apply to southern Americans. It applies to all of us, both the recipients of toxic positivity, and the one’s keeping this detrimental mindset in business.
People everywhere are reminded to practise gratitude, or keep their chins up, or change their mindsets, but why? Do we genuinely believe the only way to get anywhere in life is by only holding space for the good, or are we so accustomed to avoiding “negative” talk that we’ll do anything and everything to ensure we don’t engage?
I think it’s the latter, and we have society to thank for telling us there’s something wrong if we aren’t perpetually smiling and walking on sunshine.
The year 2020 has been different, and not just in the obvious ways of collectively navigating a pandemic or the potential that Trump could very well get re-elected by the American people, but it’s been different in that we’ve been more honest than ever before, and it all started when the majority of the people in the entire world were confined to their homes. Our lives changed overnight. Suddenly, our work schedules didn’t define us. Our social lives were nonexistent. We couldn’t go to the gym or the grocery store without being fearful of contracting a virus that could kill us or our loved ones. We worried about paying our bills. Everything changed.
And in the snap of a finger, we got honest about our struggles. Social media feeds were laden with pictures of people in their pajamas for the fifth day in a row, everyone was suddenly a home baker nurturing their sourdough starters, and we spent more and more time sitting outside on our front steps wishing we could be anywhere but home.
When we shared our worries, instead of being met with, “Be thankful you have a home,” a different kind of response rolled through. An honest response. A relatable response. A response that’s actually useful and one we want to hear.
This all fucking sucks. And, sometimes it’s just as simple as that.
Our mandatory stay-at-home order timeframe was the most I had ever related to social media before, because I finally felt like I had permission to become even more open about my anxiety disorder, feelings of inadequacy when it came to love and my career, and just how little motivation I had to do much of anything. I felt validated. And I’m sure you did, too.
If we’ve learned anything this year, especially during the pandemic, it’s that, yes, we can and should embrace positivity when positivity is due, but our sad needs air, too.
Sad is a feeling opposite to happy, and if we’re encouraged to feel our happy, we should be empowered to nurture our sad.
Months went by, cities started opening back up, and, as most things do, the authenticity on social media, the supportive and relatable comments, and the feeling of togetherness stopped. And things started to go back to normal. I feared this. I knew this would happen. It makes me wonder what reality I’m actually living in, too. Which one is real? The one where we can shout together, “I’m sad! This fucking sucks!” or the one where I’m encouraged to share my feelings, but not above anything more than a hushed whisper, because we don’t want to bother people with our sad.
“’If you think happy, you will be happy,’ Megan said. “My ex-husband said that to me regarding my depression.”
Who’s heard this one before? Think happy thoughts. Just be happy. Had I known it was this easy to avoid a depressive episode simply by thinking happy thoughts, I would have saved a ton of money in therapy. This advice, despite coming from a well-intentioned place, is bullshit. It’s so hurtful and not helpful in the least, and if you, too, struggle with depression, then you know firsthand that thinking happy doesn’t make you feel better. If anything, it makes you feel worse because it introduces you to guilt.
How can I be depressed? I have a job! I have friends! I have a car and a dog, and I’m loved!
And if you’ve ever been depressed and felt guilt for being depressed? Whew. Rough. Something else that’s rough? Working at a soulless job because you need it, and not having a shoulder to lean on for support.
“I got laid off once and was unemployed for almost two years. When I finally got a job, it was at a retail location for a major technology company. My position paid well, and the job saved me from a dire situation. I was grateful beyond measure,” said Henry. “However, my position entailed face-to-face encounters with up to 50 people a day, many of which were not pleasant. I was yelled at, insulted, threatened, etc. There were days that would just spiritually break me. Venting to friends and family would often lead to the “You should be grateful. At least you have a job.” line. So, I found myself in a situation where I needed the money, but my soul was dying.”
I relate to this one, too.
“To have people you love and confide in shoot straight to the cliche lines about counting my blessings wasn’t helpful in the least. I was grateful and aware that I was in a better situation than most, but that was separate from the spiritual sacrifice I had to make on a daily basis just to show up for work every day. When people would say things like that to me, I would feel guilty on some level. It was as if I was convincing myself I had to toughen up. All that toxic positivity did at a subconscious level was poison me,” said Henry.
In reading these stories from people, I couldn’t help but think, “Yeah, I get it,” and that’s because I’ve been there. I understand. I know what it’s like to have your partner look you in the face and tell you to just be happy.
“Kaitlyn, I’m happy. Can’t you just be happy?”
I know what it’s like to sit behind the desk at a job you cannot stand, because the job hunt got the best of you, and so you had to take what you can get. I know the emotional toll of working at a desk when you’re a creative and just how harmful a mediocre day-to-day routine can be for some of our mental health. I know the anguish when people tell you to just be grateful.
Toxic positivity is a double-edged sword. It isn’t just hurting the person that’s being given unsolicited and unhelpful advice, but it’s hurting the giver by perpetuating the false narrative that everything in life is our choice and that we can change anything if we just try.
Everything in life is not a choice. And we can’t change anything if we just try. We can do a better job of meeting people where they are, as opposed to thrusting a hefty dose of “good vibes” onto them, when all they’re asking for is someone to stop, listen, and witness their grief and pain.
And, you know what? Grief and pain fucking suck.
And it’s okay to say that. It’s not negative of you to admit. Acknowledging someone’s truth is positive. Relentlessly reminding us to ‘count our blessings’ isn’t. And, in our quest for positivity, that might just have to do for now.