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What Is Toxic Positivity And Why Should You Be Wary Of The ‘Good Vibes Only’ Squad On Social Media?

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When Indian Matchmaking dropped on Netflix, so many uber-woke peeps flooded my social media feed with posts on the whole, ‘Don’t you worry, you’ll find the right person without compromise and your life will be great’ philosophy. However, rather than feeling reassured, it made me, a 29-year-old single desi girl, want to throw something at them. Instead, I compromised, and posted a lengthy rant on how this sentiment was overly optimistic to the point of toxic positivity and so oblivious of the ground reality that it was ridiculous. Think about it, we are in the middle of a pandemic, people are lonely, and telling them to ignore their misgivings and try to be happy felt more fake than the followers that rapper Badshah bought. Allegedly. 

So what is toxic positivity?

The Psychology Group defines toxic positivity as “… the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.”

Simply put, when things are going to sh*t, and you still pretend that you’re a ray of sunshine, it is called being positive. But when you continue to do so at the cost of ignoring your own negative emotions and urging others to ignore theirs too,  you’re kind of being toxic with your positivity. And, annoying. Toxic not just to other people who might feel miserable because they feel the pressure to be as happy as you say they should be, but also to yourself, because you’re in denial of the negative feelings that are very much present in your life and perhaps need some tending of their own.

What’s with an upswing in toxic positivity? Blame the pandemic.

Unfortunately, it might be because we are in a pandemic that people have decided to slap on blinders and latch on to anything that assures them sab changa si. Because the alternative, giving into the fear and hopelessness drowning us, can be crippling. So, there emerged a special squad of people on social media who’ve taken the charge of posting intensely positive content at all times. From telling you everything’s going to be okay if you just smile today and plough through, to posting pictures of their ‘happy weekend’ full of love, food and laughter, to an overuse of the smiley face and flower emoji, these Instagram feeds feel like a perpetual Coachella thrust in the face of someone in house arrest.

Now normally, a positive outlook on life is both encouraged and welcomed. When life gives you lemons, you gotta make that lemonade and drink it. I mean, it’s a good defence mechanism against the little curveballs that life throws at us. Can you imagine where we’d be without our inspirational quotes and ‘Be positive’ SMSes? Especially when we’re constantly reminded that millennials are in the danger of burning out too soon, or that Gen Zs are more prone to depression and anxiety than their predecessors. While mental health advocates would like us to remember that these issues do not, in any way, indicate that we’re weak, we rarely listen, do we?

Of course, as the saying goes, we don’t want that kind of negativity in our life. And so we feel a sort of peer and societal pressure to chase happiness, and pretend that we’re okay. We’ll post pictures of our steaming coffee mug on Monday morning and pretend like work from home isn’t draining us of our passion for our career. We’ll post videos of our long drives captioned “finally out of the house” when we’re actually mourning for that cancelled Goa trip. And we’ll talk about how being happily married or committed in the pandemic is bliss, when secretly, we wish we were living alone, single and young without so many adulting responsibilities. We pretend like we’re well-adjusted with the ‘new normal’, because what choice do we have, really?

For the most part, this tactic works. Social media has enabled us to live this dual life where on the inside we may be crumbling to pieces, but on the outside, our lives are glistening with joy from living a picture perfect existence. We’ll add a filter to make our skin look bright and flawless; another to make our surroundings look shiny and opulent; and one more to make the whole picture look rosy. Add to that captions like ‘Good Vibes Only’, ‘Living my best life’, and ‘Live Laugh Love’ and you’ve easily fooled your followers (and yourself) into thinking you’re happy. This isn’t always a bad thing, though. Sometimes, coming across a positive message, quote, video, or story can be very reassuring and lift you up from the doldrums.

The problem, then, arises when the optimism becomes overbearing and makes you ignore the problems and negativity in your life that must be dealt with at some point. Furthermore, being bombarded 24/7 with overwhelming positivity can make you overly critical about experiencing any negative emotion at all. For example, telling yourself that you’ll get through a job lay-off during the pandemic is motivation done right. But criticising yourself over how this loss of job makes you feel (angry, sad, like a failure) because an overly positive LinkedIn post told you this is not the end of the road…. That’s toxic positivity right there.

Also Read: Instagram’s Censorship Of A Black Plus-Sized Model’s Photo Raises Concern. Do Its Policies Have A Racial Bias?

Judging yourselves for experiencing negative emotions? Erm, not a good idea.

In his widely popular book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, author Mark Manson talks about how avoiding your suffering could actually be problematic.

“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.”

In a 2018 study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researches surmised that “… individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may attain better psychological health, in part because acceptance helps them experience less negative emotion in response to stressors.” This process of acceptance, which the study labels ‘habitual acceptance’, has been linked with better psychological health.

And it makes sense, right? Accepting our negative emotions ensures that we stay in the reality, rather than get transported into some escapist realm that keeps us deluded about the severity of our problems. Because at some point, there is going to be that one iceberg that is difficult to navigate past. And if we’re living in our own La La Land of toxic positivity, we’ll never see it coming. The result? We crash and burn into pieces, and that raft of positivity won’t be barely enough to keep us afloat.


Finding the right kind of positivity

One of the biggest influencers of our time, Baburao Ganpatrao Apte of Hera Pheri fame, has said, “Khushiyaan baantne se badhti hain. Dukh baantne se kam hota hai.” I tip my helmet and touché to this profound truth.

The more positivity and joy you spread (with the right hashtags), the more it gets propagated. But the more you talk about the negative emotions that affect you, the less dangerous they become. You can see this theory in action on social media itself, where it is juxtaposed with the toxic positivity crap, fighting a constant battle to triumph over it. Because if it wins, so does mental health awareness. It has, after all, always been about accepting that which we find difficult to make peace with, isn’t it? Though it has always been there, I have noticed a sudden spike of people baring their innermost feelings on social media, unafraid of judgement, and trying to build a community where others like them can come to terms with their own feelings and realise that they’re not alone.

This truthfulness of people, amidst all the fake propaganda and news, makes me highly optimistic (not toxic) that we just might get through this by finding a sort of balance between our emotions. Going back to our example of losing your job in the pandemic, the best way to get through it would be to find a middle ground between throwing yourself a pity party and remaining positive that you’ll find something if you look hard enough. Which means while you’re building your personal brand by posting positive messages on LinkedIn and building connections that’ll help you find a new job, you can allow yourself to grieve the one you lost by writing a post about how it made you feel or talking to your loved ones about it. It would mean being stripped of that brave face you put on, but when the messages begin pouring in, you’ll realise that we’re all in this together. And that can help.

What we should also be mindful about is where we seek this positivity from and what we give our attention to. Social media is a great place to find others who’re going through the same thing as you are and help each other. But it is also easy to get influenced by the rosy candids of people who seem to be living a better life than you, or to feel guilty about being happy when others are suffering. One of my biggest social media pet peeves are those write-ups that people copy-paste “to see if anyone reads my post” or “anyone remembers how we first met”. We see lots of replies on them and think a particular person is loved, but the reality might be different, the attention span of people fickle. It is then best to seek support from people you can actually trust to not be fake with you or support you just through the Instagram comment section.

Nobody is saying that you need to fixate over every little thing that goes wrong. No, not on the problem itself. But we need to acknowledge how it makes us feel. Once we’ve done that, we can then work on absorbing the right kind and amount of positivity from our environment—one that does not belittle our suffering but helps us accept and live with it.

Also Read: #Voices: No, Granting Period Leaves To Women Employees Isn’t Sexist And Won’t Hurt Equality. Here’s Why.


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