“Live, Laugh, Love”… Let’s Not

Though sometimes subtle, toxic positivity is a real issue in our current society that needs to be addressed, especially as the pandemic continues.

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By Tina Siu

During my freshman year at Stuyvesant, getting report cards back was like a game—people traded papers, compared grades, and calculated their GPAs. It was a bundle of excitement the first time we got back our progress reports with number grades. People nosily asked how you did, and if you refused to answer, you were then swarmed with questions. I did not want to endure several interrogations, so when I was asked, I reluctantly answered. My friends, momentarily stunned at my low grades, jumped to the typical phrases:

“Don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll get better.”

“Be sure to stay positive!”

“It’s not the worst you could’ve gotten...”

Every time I hear these phrases or other similar remarks, I want to scream. They do not add significant or solid advice to solve the problem. In fact, they often magnify the tension tenfold by making me feel even worse. Phrases like these are an example of toxic positivity, which is the belief that no matter how terrible the situation is at hand, you should always keep a positive attitude and a “good vibe.” It stems from the idea that the best way to cope with a negative situation is only to focus on the positive parts and ignore the potential negative implications of the said situation. By pushing away someone’s negative feelings and telling them to stay optimistic, you are also denying their feelings, causing them to feel ashamed and guilty. It is a form of gaslighting, manipulating—whether you actively realize it or not—someone into questioning their own thoughts, beliefs, and actions.

Additionally, this concept is a type of avoidance mechanism, a defense method used to consciously or subconsciously evade concerning yourself with a stressor. When confronted with someone’s negative feelings, it is typical to want to avoid dealing with the emotional situation at hand. If you are not careful, however, you may turn to toxic positivity to avoid these feelings. This response only makes the other person feel worse and can potentially prevent both of you from becoming better people as you are ignoring these challenging feelings.

Furthermore, it is now more important than ever to address the types of toxic positivity in our lives and correct them. As more people become impoverished or lose loved ones due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health has declined dramatically. Four in 10 adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic compared to the usual one in 10 pre-pandemic. Eighty-seven percent of Gen Z adult college students are feeling significant school-related stress. Additionally, during this uncertain time, society imposes this illogical pressure to stay productive, built off of the belief that we should use the “extra time” spent at home to our advantage. Therefore, it should be clear that no one needs the added negative implications of toxic positivity in their life. A study on the effect of hidden/denied feelings and stress levels found that the group who suppressed their emotions while watching a video had significantly higher physiological arousal. Now imagine the consequences when already stressed people become even more stressed because they feel like their feelings are being invalidated.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting an optimistic attitude toward life, but it is not the same as putting on a fake smile, sugarcoating issues, and ignoring authentic problems. Real positivity means actually acknowledging challenges, listening to other people’s feelings, and genuinely encouraging them to gain motivation and do better. The challenge now is how you can give genuine encouragement. The answer all depends on the circumstances of the situation. If a friend is dealing with a challenge, show that you are here for their emotions without putting pressure on them, and offer help the best way you can instead of insisting that it will simply get better. Set up daily goals or a clear plan for them to follow. If you have time, join them on the journey, and be each other’s accountability partners. Whatever you choose to do, do not use the same generic phrases to comfort them.

Not everyone can keep a positive attitude all the time. Not everyone wants to be happy all the time. The more we continue to partake in toxic positivity, the more normalized it will become, leading to an overall negative effect on society. We all need to be aware of our actions and make sure that we are not unintentionally dismissing our friends’ and family’s feelings.