There is practising gratitude, and then there's Toxic Positivity. Here is why always 'looking on the bright side' can invalidate the human experience.
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"Try and look on the bright side."
"At the end of the day, at least you have dot dot dot..."
We’ve probably all said them, too. However - regardless of their intention or the earnestness of delivery - as a rallying call to motivate you to ‘carry on,’ feeling forced to endure suffering with a smile hurts.
It invalidates your experience and the very real human emotions you are feeling.
These kinds of reassuring platitudes, however well intentioned, are missing a vital ingredient: Empathy.
And that’s toxic; even more so when it invalidates the experience of a marginalised or less privileged person in your community.
With so much tragedy unfolding, and the daily news cycle a constant stream of horror, it is so easy to feel guilt over seemingly trivial emotions. "I shouldn't feel unhappy when I don't have it as bad as..." is a regular thought for many of us.
It’s a brand of toxicity that lives on the periphery of almost everything we do and consume.
From ‘live, laugh LOVE’ slogans on Kmart homewares to the words ‘No Bad Days’ splayed on the walls of an inner city yoga studio, these kinds of messages reflect a falsification of the human experience that is both grossly disingenuous and quite frankly, disillusioned.
What’s even stranger is that although messages like this send off alarm bells in our heads, we continue to buy into these ideas, these products and these branded experiences – with hard cash and emotional engagement.
So, why are we here, existing in a flux of false reassurances?
Global mental health statistics propose that mental health and substance use disorders affect 13% of the world’s population.
On a macro scale, we’re facing the rapidly declining health of our planet - the evidence of which is playing out manifestly here in Australia, the world teetering on the edge of a world war, a global pandemic, and racial and gender inequality.
On a micro-scale, we’re contending with the intimate effects of these issues in our worlds; online and off.
Here are a few things we found helpful in deconstructing our tendencies to perform toxic positivity to better support our family and friends in their times of need – particularly those who are marginalised or experience less privilege than we do.
Learning to accept a negative response from a loved one begins with learning to accept one from yourself.
Take a quiet moment to notice how you’re feeling and what’s going on in your body and mind. If you notice any negativity, don’t judge yourself for it - just make a note of it and move on.
Those who perpetrate toxic positivity often don't even realise they're doing it, as this type of response is so ingrained in our Western cultural lexicon.
When someone is sharing their vulnerabilities with you, try to speak less and listen more. Then, try and console them in a way that makes them feel safe, heard, and held.
Like the majority of human interactions, we don’t get a rule book when it comes to this type of response and like all of them, it isn’t black and white.
The difference between performing toxic positivity and calling someone out for inappropriately lamenting over an experience can feel murky at best.
Your values and relationship with this individual will be your guide here, but our advice remains the same. Listen more; speak less.
When you catch yourself in the moment or after the fact, it’s normal to feel defensive or distressed that you dismissed a friend’s experience or tried to sideline their feelings with a barrage of happy mantras.
Combat this by calling yourself out and openly admitting you got it wrong. Being open to this type of self-inquiry is what builds a better cultural discourse with these types of behaviours, and ultimately leads the way towards a more accepting and mindful style of communication for all.