It’s OK To Not Be OK: How To Deal With Toxic Positivity
Illustration by Mr Iker Ayestaran
The breaking point happened last October. I could feel it coming. I was tired and had had enough. After a year of unrest in the pandemic, the opportunity of a lifetime slipped through my fingers and it was all my fault. It was what happened straight afterwards, though, that made it worse. I found myself reciting over and again, “Everything’s great, you’re great,” as a coping mechanism, until it finally hit me – little about this situation was great. I suffered a minor breakdown.
Like many people at the start of our new normal, I resolved to be more positive: to get in shape, learn a language, express gratitude and pursue my ambition – a novel I’d been trying to write for four years. Positivity was amplified from a mindset to a survival instinct, as the myriad self-help articles, podcasts and videos on social media (never forget the brutal celebrity rendition of “Imagine”) promised to help us pull through. But in an era where our happiness – perceived or otherwise – translates as social currency, the inability to show sadness can have serious consequences.
After grafting for months to meet a deadline I’d set myself for my literary ambitions, I made a few rushed mistakes that ended in a rejected proposal. Rejection is part of the game if you’re a writer. You’re meant to reply with, “Thank you” and move on. But that morning, and perhaps heightened by some difficult family news, I didn’t feel like smiling through the upset.
This pressure to live our best lives has led to a culture of over-optimism known as toxic positivity, where we mask negative emotions with happiness and being productive. “We need both head and heart to make decisions,” says Dr Jonathan Pointer, chartered psychologist at therapysanctuary.com, an online therapy practice. “If we choose to ignore the negative emotions, we could miss something important.” The outcome can be more destructive. “We are likely to create further psychological distress for ourselves,” he says. “Perhaps through feelings of guilt and shame for having unwanted emotions.”
“Hustle culture leads us towards devaluing anything not seen as productive”
Once you’re aware of this toxic positive behaviour, you notice it everywhere. It’s the guilt from feeling sad or anxious in lockdown. The times I’d met others’ emotional needs, or even activism, with useless platitudes. And the fear in projecting anything less than a happy life, especially over social media, which is designed to reward and measure our happiness against each other.
This “happy hierarchy” is most naked in those fascinating, bizarre clips of Influencers In The Wild on Instagram, performing for the camera in 10-second bursts of energy, before meandering off into society again. I engaged in this too, on a smaller scale, by posting snippets of #GoodVibesOnly from isolation: a throwback to a holiday in Paris, an enviable career move or a burrito delivered from that cool new place in Greenwich. And toxic positivity was certainly present as I muttered, “Everything’s great, it will be great,” like a parrot, just before I cracked.
Strangely enough, an epiphany came from watching The Lego Movie. In the opening scene, we watch the adorable plastic natives of Bricksburg at a construction site singing the catchy song “Everything Is Awesome”, their mantra to work, work, work and nothing else. This completely distracts and dupes them (inadvertently) into serving the evil Lord Business. It’s only when the main character, Emmet, is removed from his dystopian brick bubble that he embarks on a hero’s journey arc that helps him grow and find purpose. Deep stuff for a kids’ film.
Still, Emmet’s story resonates. As real-life Lord Business despots ran our nations and people faced serious illness, it felt sensible to want to maintain a productive distraction or hustle. For me, that was writing my novel, and it wasn’t working out.
Dr Pointer warns against this. “Hustle culture leads us towards devaluing anything not seen as productive, while also reducing the definition of what is considered productive to goals,” he says. Valuing this kind of productivity “suggests that we are still holding on to the unhelpful narrative that productivity equals self-worth”. The pressure was on to write, which left the words rushed and the creative process unfulfilling. Looking for meaning, I started to pore over a horoscope, allowing its author to dictate my mood or work ethic. Some time near the start of the pandemic, I even embarked on a gratitude journal, a popular tool in self-help circles.
“Toxic masculine narratives inhibit men from reaching out for emotional support. Instead, you will become more likely to put on a façade of positivity”
“It could be worse” was my favourite set-up line. One entry goes: “It could be worse. I could have no roof over my head.” But this is also unfair, dismissing whatever concerns I had that day (doing badly at work, a failed date, empty fridge) and really boiling down to: “Stop whining, Chris.” For immediate relief, I would cloak my negative emotions with long periods of drinking. I never once thought to talk about it. Always the same guilty reaction: “Stop whining, Chris.”
“Without the opportunity to discuss their feelings, men may turn to unhelpful coping mechanisms, such as alcohol, to manage these emotions,” says Dr Pointer. As men, those support systems or empathetic ears are harder to come by and the acceptably masculine, albeit potentially damaging, thing to do is to hope it goes away. “These toxic masculine narratives inhibit men from reaching out for emotional support,” he says. “Instead, you will become more likely to put on a façade of positivity.”
The strangest thing about my breakdown was how calm everything was the next day. I’d accidentally walked headlong into the abyss and had wrangled with some hard truths. I had also made it to the other side. I wanted that sensation again – the ensuing relief after the outbreak, the shock from authentic emotions – but I didn’t want to make the same mistakes getting there.
A doctor I saw suggested mindfulness, which has helped me connect with what I consider to be positive, but constructively so. Every morning, I take 20 minutes for myself to meditate in a judgment-free zone, exploring all my emotions, even the tough ones, and accepting their influence on my mood. There’s a quote I like by the Confucian philosopher Mr Chuang Tzu that’s as close to a mantra as I’m allowing myself to get: “Happiness is the absence of striving for happiness.”
Since that October morning, I’ve been lifting myself from the fruitless pursuit of happiness. That’s not to say I’m moping around ruining people’s parties, but empathy has replaced the hole in my life I once crammed with #GoodVibesOnly. And the writing seems less like a chore now, free from the unfair expectations I have of myself, of our hustle culture or time.
Toxic positivity is already woven haphazardly into our society, but we can start by being more aware of the signs, the dangers and how it can discourage those who seek our help. Which is vital as we roll out of our isolated period, hungover on resolve and the news cycle, hazy and sometimes in need of someone to tell us what we least want to hear and to hear what they are least told – the truth.