By Sanjana Karthik
Toxic positivity is an “insincere” positive-sounding phrase that is detrimental to someone’s mental well-being. It is “the assumption, either by oneself or others that they should only have a positive mindset despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation,” as Dr. Zuckerman explained it. Toxic positivity phrases in daily use can include “it can be worse,” “everything will be fine,” “look at the bright side,” and “just be happy.”
Optimism is an “attractive behavior in people that makes them seem more well-adapted,” said Dr. Preston, who specializes in empathy, altruism, and the way emotions affect behavior. As per Dr. Preston and Dr. Carolyn Karol’s research, optimism can lead to an issue when people begin to invalidate the range of emotions they experience or a problem they have encountered. Carolyn Karoll, a psychotherapist in Baltimore, also states that in doing so, it is not only counterproductive but “it can give the impression that you are defective when you feel distressed, which can make you feel inadequate or weak.” As per Dr. Zukerman, toxic positivity can constitute consciously or unconsciously as an avoidance strategy used to push away and invalidate any internal discomfort,” which can lead to disrupted sleep, increased substance abuse, prolonged grief, or even PTSD.
This topic is especially integral to discuss in a period where hardships during the pandemic are even more prevalent. The 40.9% of respondents in a survey in June 2020 reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including anxiety disorder or depressive disorder symptoms. During a period where people are more susceptible to a mental health condition, people must not get persuaded by forms of toxic positivity in their struggle for recovery.
Social media is unknowingly flooded with toxic positivity to lift people’s spirits during this period by saying: “pursue a hobby” and “you have so much time make use of it.” These notions are valuable ways for people to be engaged in their community and stay connected with themselves and their passions during the pandemic. However, “putting one foot in front of the other is an accomplishment for many during this global pandemic.” as Dr. Karoll states. Being productive can be constituted as something essential to consider during the pandemic, but let this not hinder people from validating their emotions and finding the support they need.
To refrain from a mindset that is regulated often by toxic positivity, people must first understand the gravity of their lives during the pandemic and realize that this pandemic naturally causes interferences in people’s schedules and lives, thus amounting to stress at times. People must learn to stay in tune with their emotions and reflect on their current state of mind. If a person realizes that they cannot cope or adapt to the current situation, they should understand that this is natural and have the right to be upset.
It is equally important that people fully-heartedly experience their emotions and then take measures to support themselves during this time. Connecting with mental health resources, therapists and integrating small habits in their days to consider their mental health is optimal. As per a UCLA Study writing thing down can “be putting feelings into words [and] reduce the intensity of emotions such as sadness, anger, and pain.” This approach is just one method for people to decipher their emotions and find an outlet fully.
To support other people during this pandemic as well, Dr. DeSilva states that “it’s [..] healthier to acknowledge the pain a person might be experiencing. Ask what they need. It’s possible to exude a positive attitude and still interact with others in a caring way. That’s when positivity is not toxic.”
Our word choices and thought patterns can significantly affect our approach to supporting others. Instead of using phrases such as “it can be worse,” people should try saying something along the lines of “I know things are currently difficult right now for you, what are some positive things that you can surround yourself with?” Instead of saying “just be happy,” say, “it’s okay if you can’t be happy right now. That’s normal and part of life. Do you need to talk about it? What are some things you can turn to that will help you feel better?” These small changes in our wording choices validate and fully experience their emotions, and then reflect on it and work towards a solution, opposed to simply suppressing what they feel.
Acknowledging these steps in a person’s path to rehabilitation without the hindrance of toxic positivity can truly digest one’s experiences and grow from them.