I get that toxic is a ~trendy~ word right now that nobody takes seriously, but hear me out.
Toxic positivity is real. And contradictory for positive mental/emotional growth and development.
I think we’ve created this culture of positivity that can help some people while simultaneously harming others. And that’s what I want to address today: the positivity paradox.
People who genuinely want to live good, happy lives claim that the secret is in positive thinking. I don’t necessarily disagree with that. In fact, I think that’s a great thing! I have a quote on my work desk that says “change your thoughts and change your world,” and I believe it. But I also believe in being real. And in real life, not everything is positive all the time. And you can’t just act like it is.
The unfortunate reality is this: people think that if they admit they’re weak, either to their friends or on their social media, it’s the equivalent of begging for attention or validation. I believe that sometimes that is the case. But it’s all in the delivery. I’ve observed methods that don’t come across as negative, but as honest. And I’m a passionate believer in being honest about your circumstances. Not only is it relatable and real, it’s healthy. For current you, future you, and for everyone else who might be comparing themselves to you (which is their problem that you are not responsible for, but nonetheless, we’ve all (probably) been there).
From personal experience: my time in China was one of the lowest points of my entire life. It was the first time that I considered suicide as an actual option–not just as a taboo “I wish I could do that.” Inside, I was in a very dark place. But in my pictures, I was smiling. In my captions, I was making jokes; in my replies, I was superficial. Now, I really was doing some super cool stuff. I’m grateful for my time and my experiences there and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. But I would get people commenting things like “you look so happy!” and “I’m so jealous,” and I realized that I was lying. And if other people were comparing their normal, school- and work-filled lives with my traveling adventures, they were caught up in that lie that I was spinning.
Now, I didn’t owe it to anyone to tell them my true thoughts and feelings, but I do owe it to myself to see my life for what it is. So I decided to discard the idea that social media is only for big, exciting life updates. Nobody is going to compare their real life to my “highlight reel” anymore. I’m going to be candid.
I was averse to this idea at first because growing up, I was always told that I was too Negative. And we were taught that Negative people are Not Fun to be around because they’re Draining and they Kill Joy. So basically, instead of being told “hey, you might have a mental illness, you should really get some help and learn how to take care of yourself,” I was told, “hey, you need to fix your bad attitude or nobody is going to want to be your friend.” You can imagine how fun that was for me to hear and internalize.
SoOoOo I learned to either shut up or fake it. And I’m actually terrible at both of those things. So my real friends (bless them) still saw me at my real (because I don’t have any other setting) and the thing was, even though they loved me, all I could think about was how burdensome I was in every relationship that I had because I was Negative.
If my story sounds anything like yours, let me just whip out my megaphone and announce that:
🗣that is not a healthy way to live 🗣
You’re allowed to feel. We say that “there is opposition in all things,” but then once something bad happens, we think we can just will away the bad feelings and that, if we don’t, there’s something wrong with us. There’s nothing wrong with feeling pain. Pain is a vital part of being alive.
Now I do want to clarify that I think positive thinking is a great thing. Optimism is fantastic and I’m not here to trash talk it. But I do emphatically believe that the push to “positive thinking” can be damaging. I’ve lived it.
When you think that ignoring bad feelings will make them go away? That’s toxic positivity. If you say that someone is “just being negative” and that “thinking happy thoughts will make everything better,” that’s toxic positivity. When we ignore the bad and focus solely on the good? That’s toxic positivity. You cannot learn from the bad if you ignore it. You cannot make peace with your past if you refuse to acknowledge that it hurt you.
We need to be honest with each other and with ourselves if we are to be able to heal, move forward, and deal healthily, as individuals and as a society, with our reality. Otherwise, we’ll just see the past as better than it was and the present as never good enough. It’s already too easy to see the past with rose-tinted glasses, don’t make it harder for your future self by writing in journals or posting on social media about only the positive things you’re going through.
Note: gratitude is important and we should understand that no matter where we are in life, we have something to be grateful for. But addressing our pain does not equate to ingratitude.
Take, for example, a broken arm. We don’t say “well, I’m lucky to even have an arm, so I can’t complain about the pain.” That is ludicrous. It is because we are thankful for our arm that listen to the pain and seek treatment. We don’t just will the pain away with gratitude and positivity. So why can’t we do that with our minds and hearts? I would argue that those are of much greater value to us.
We can’t heal if we don’t think that anything is wrong with us. We can’t heal if we don’t know where the pain is coming from. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what it is. So address those problems. Find their source. And then solve them.
One of the best things I’ve seen on twitter was this tweet from user @JenAshleyWright. It says:
“People talk about caterpillars becoming butterflies as though they just go into a cocoon, slap on wings, and are good to go.
Caterpillars have to dissolve into a disgusting pile of goo to become butterflies.
So if you’re a mess wrapped up in blankets right now, keep going.”
A caterpillar in a chrysalis literally digests itself and releases enzymes to dissolve all its tissues. It is soup in there. But that is an essential step in the metamorphosis. And according to scientificamerican.com, “disturbing a caterpillar inside its cocoon or chrysalis risks botching the transformation.”
So don’t disturb your own transformation by trying to slap on your wings and fly already. Growth takes time. Sometimes a build-up must be preceded by a colossal breakdown. That doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you’re transforming.
Be kind to yourself when you’re a mess in a pile of blankets. You’ll start flying soon enough. For now, be goo.