Woman In Mask Looking Out Of Window

The dark side to our positive vibes

Toxic positivity challenged. Why it's okay - not to be okay

Written by Professor Gary Martin FAIM
3 minute read
Woman In Mask Looking Out Of Window

We are in this together. Everything happens for a reason. It could be worse. It is what it is. Platitudes like these and others will continue to roll off our tongues as the pandemic follows us in to the new year and we attempt to put a positive spin on upsetting, disturbing or tragic circumstances.

While there’s little doubt that there is merit in being positive during tough times there’s also a disturbing dark side to our overly optimistic ways – something called toxic positivity.

Toxic positivity, an obsession with positive thinking, has spread like wildfire during the pandemic and now poses a very real threat to the mental wellbeing of those who are doing it tough.

Instead of empathising with those experiencing challenging situations we are increasingly opting for a toxic quick fix which dismisses the slightest sniff of negativity.

We’ve become accustomed to pouring overly positive vibes on emotions such as fear, sadness, loneliness or anger to push those struggling into a state of false cheerfulness.

Everyone’s been on the receiving end of toxic positivity during the pandemic.

You might have even dished up a serve of two of it to a family member, friend or work colleague.

You lose your dream job early in the pandemic, and despite your devastation, your mother tries to console you by telling you “at least you have a decent payout”, “one door closes and another will open“ and “to be positive and a new job will just happen”.

When forced to quarantine and work from home you confide in a friend that a lack of social contact is getting you down.

Even though you are feeling very isolated, your friend lets you know that you should “go with the flow” insisting that time alone is a great opportunity to learn something new, try out new recipes, and save money.

After two years of being geographically apart, you split with your long-term partner and appear visibly upset when you arrive at work.

Your boss tells you that “everything happens for a reason”, “time heals all wounds” and “there’s plenty more fish in the sea”. It’s simply not what you wanted to hear.

And when you remark to a customer that your small business has lost thousands of dollars during the pandemic they respond with “well, I guess we should all be grateful for what we have” and “just think about how much worse it is for others”.

Rarely does toxic positivity offer the support, compassion or empathy needed by those grappling with difficult circumstances.

And it can make a situation worse rather than better particularly when it pushes people towards what might best be described as fake cheerfulness.

It’s not hard to understand why we dish up doses of toxic positivity to those we see struggling.

In our community, we tend to value positivity over negativity.

As children we are taught to banish so-called bad feelings or to pick ourselves up when we fall. We are told to stop whingeing, to soldier on, to stop being negative and to look on the bright side of things.

We’ve become a fix-it-fast culture and that’s created FONO – fear of a negative outlook. FONO drives us to drown out negative vibes with buckets of positivity and false reassurances.

Yet in troubled times, we should pause before passing out too much positivity.

Think of toxic positivity like eating too much cake. If you offer someone a single slice of cake it’s probably going to be welcome and taste good. Extra slices of cake will bring on queasiness while shoving a piece of cake into someone’s mouth when they don’t feel like it is going to make them very ill.

It’s the same with being too positive towards someone who is struggling.

A dose of healthy positive vibes might help on the odd occasion but too much of it might start to make someone with real challenges feel that they are weak, defective, hopeless, or a failure- or that they should never have shared a problem with you in the first place.

On a positive note, a brand-new year provides us with an opportunity to revisit how we support our loved ones, friends and work colleagues who have fallen on hard times.

Let’s dispense with sickeningly sweet sentiments and make it very clear to those who need our support that it’s actually okay – not to be okay.