The language of toxic positivity is ruining the internet for everyone, one good vibe at a time.
“Be cheerful, be happy, just tell yourself you’re happy with your life”, I saw on someone’s Instagram post and I made a face, as I always do, out of sheer repulsion when I see such pushy positive ‘affirmations’ being sold as life lessons on social media. The internet has made a joke out of positive thinking — and it’s gotten toxic.
Toxic positivity isn’t an internet-borne issue, it’s just been accelerated by the access to technology because now, beyond your household, you have more people in the world pressuring you to be ‘happy’. As a kid, if you ever cried, at least one joker in your family would ask you to “smile” instead. Or if you felt low, or hurt by something someone said, you were told to “cheer up”.
My favourite one is “don’t think about it, think about good things”. Thanks, Susan, my anxiety-ridden brain is very excited about the proposition but can’t follow through.
If you haven’t gotten it already, let me explain, in a more scientific and psychologically appropriate way — toxic positivity is “the overgeneralisation of a happy, optimistic state that results in the denial, minimisation, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience”.
That’s right, it’s time to question the “positive thinkers” you follow on Instagram who are always ready with pictures of a cloud or the sea, clubbed with a motivational albeit irritating quote, and those who fall for this, and reshare it.
You know the worst part about such toxic and forced positive vibes? It causes shame to those feeling pain. When all you see around is people sharing how “sunshiney” they feel, it’s not unnatural to go all “why can’t I be happy” on yourself. Also, if someone is constantly talking about how motivated they are, and how they always look at the positive in every situation, they’re kidding themselves. Sorry, not sorry. This constant Instagrammable motivation doesn’t necessarily reflect someone’s actual state of mind. I’d rather look up to someone who mixes it up with sharing vulnerable, sad moments, as well as their bitter thoughts. Even Carl Jung said he’d rather be whole than be good, after all.
While the world has been navigating a pandemic for the past year and a half, this quota of toxic good vibing has only increased. People, myself included, are exhausted by the dismissal of reality — we are all sick and tired of being locked in, done with seeing the faces of those we live with, and do not want to pick a work call at 9pm to explain the obvious: ‘It’s 9pm, I’m done for the day, can we speak tomorrow?’
I’m not an influencer hater (believe me), but a classic example of the pandemic’s (ongoing) toxic positivity was influencers getting bummed out by people amplifying calls for oxygen, resources available, etc. during the second wave. Yeah, let’s talk about good things while the country is dying isn’t exactly affirmation material.
The difference between toxic positivity and genuine optimism is pretty simple. If someone is going through something, you don’t ask them to “look at the bright side” or “just stay positive”. Saying this invalidates the person’s experience, and their right to how they feel. Offer a hug, let them cry, and tell them they’re not alone. Gratitude is great, but anyone who insists you feel “thankful” when you’re down about anything needs to be shown the middle finger, straight up. Toxic positivity, and this facade of motivation on social media is, frankly, dangerous. And there’s no way to tell if the people who ask you to constantly “believe in yourself” actually practice what they preach. We’re humans, not happy pill machines, and we are allowed to feel sadness, grief, happiness, excitement, panic, and every other emotion there is.
Just as I finish this piece, I see a post on Instagram that says “It could always be worse, see the silver lining.” And then I look at my T-shirt, which says ‘It’s Okay To Not Be Okay’. I agree