It was the summer before I started university and I was ready to leave home, grow up and experience the supposed best years of my life as a shiny new me. But just before I went, two major events happened; I broke up with my boyfriend, and my grandfather died.
That week, I lost two of my closest friends – the boy I had grown up with and loved for my entire adolescent existence – and my grandad, my guiding rock, the man whose creativity, capability, and aptitude for fun were all I aspired to. My grandad was my hero and in the years since my granny had died, I spent a lot of time with him, soaking in his stories as he nostalgically reminisced about his life. We were incredibly close.
It was a lot to take in, but my break-up had been amicable and I tried to remind myself that my grief was small, manageable, and nothing that everyone else hadn’t also experienced.
“We have slowly but surely created an insatiable need to be extraordinary, to be the best or nothing; to be relentlessly positive, and endlessly productive.”
So off I went, burying any sadness down until I could no longer recognise it. I was determined to be the best version of myself; I joined clubs, met new people, and did my utmost to forget my amicably-no-longer-mine boyfriend. I slapped on layers of ‘look on the bright side’, and ‘it could be worse’ like bad foundation, and let these platitudes smother and clog my feelings. Reflecting back, I realise now that I had internalised a message of toxic positivity – the refusal to engage with negative thoughts or emotions on any real level – and it had gone badly wrong.
Fast forward to March 2020 – the UK had gone into its first national lockdown. The experience of living through a global catastrophe was both urgent and scary but also somehow far away and only tangentially threatening. It was still a novelty at this point. There was Zoom quizzes, the banana bread, and neighbours speaking to each other across fences. Living through those first stages of pandemic had that quiet, insular, yet strangely exciting quality of collective experience. Like extreme weather, it brought us together.
But then we started comparing suffering, disagreeing about who had it worse, shaming anyone who wasn’t using the time to be ‘productive’.
What we experienced in the early days of the pandemic was a microcosm of a much larger, societal issue. Over the years we have slowly but surely created an insatiable need to be extraordinary, to be the best or nothing; to be relentlessly positive, and endlessly productive. We live in a world where ‘good enough’ isn’t really good enough.
“As a society, we don’t have the words to say “I’m sorry you’re hurting, that’s really hard, let’s sit with it”.”
It seems obvious to me that the root of this problem is toxic positivity. Across social networks, self-professed ‘gurus’ of marketing, money, meditation, or whatever it may be, throw out advice like: “get up at 5am, exercise, drink celery juice for breakfast, meditate, strive for excellence, and show up every damn day. No pain, no gain and NO EXCUSES”.
Meanwhile, over on TikTok, thousands of people are sharing advice on ‘manifestation’, which is the belief that if you focus on a thought hard enough, you can make it happen. This theory has become so popular that a quick search for the #manifestation hashtag on Instagram currently brings up over 4.3 million images of highly stylised, vague quotes telling us “believe that good things will happen and they will”.
We see people climbing over each other to offer advice on manifesting your dream car, dream job, dream partner, dream life. A lot of which focuses on maintaining a ‘high frequency’ and avoiding negativity of any kind that could lower energy. Crucially, it also ignores the fact that in reality, people have to work really hard to get those things.
“It silences real and genuine grief, and minimises our smaller, everyday sadness. And what’s worse is that this ‘look on the bright side’ attitude is so ingrained in many of us that we don’t even see how we do it to ourselves.”
While New Age Movement ideas of manifestation and ‘good vibrations’ might be enjoying a renaissance online, toxic positivity is an unspoken evil that many of us are all too familiar with whether we realise or not.
It presents itself in a lot of ways. When a friend shares that they have been going through a hard time and we respond with a “could be worse”, or when someone asks us how we’re doing and we say “fine” because we think they don’t actually want to hear about it; these are common examples.
While it can sometimes be difficult to know what to say without resorting to the ‘cheer up love’ rhetoric, toxic positivity also goes much deeper. It silences real and genuine grief, and minimises our smaller, everyday sadness. And what’s worse is that this ‘look on the bright side’ attitude is so ingrained in many of us that we don’t even see how we do it to ourselves. I know from experience just how harmful that can be.
“During those holidays I finally allowed myself to feel sad… And little by little I began to feel like myself again.”
A year into my uni experience, the ‘new me’ facade cracked. A difficult encounter with my ex at a party, and a couple of months of bad sleep due to noisy neighbours was all it took for my buried sadness to rear its ugly head and cause everything to come crashing down.
I took myself home for the Christmas holidays that year, to the quiet, the calm, the cosy fires and homemade suppers of my family home. I could pretend no longer. ‘Look on the bright side’ didn’t cut it anymore, and my grief rolled out in giant waves of exhaustion. I felt as fragile as tissue paper and my heartache was so close to the surface that big, fat, childlike tears were never more than a passing thought from rolling uninvited down saturated cheeks.
During those holidays I finally allowed myself to feel sad. I cried, I slept, and I accepted the comfort and care of my family. And little by little I began to feel like myself again.
Back then, I had never heard of the phrase ‘toxic positivity’. I didn’t realise that by trying not to burden people with negative emotions, I was only making things worse. Or that the friendly but unhelpful responses I received on the rare occasions when I did open up were a symptom of a bigger problem.
“What I really needed, in that year of buried sadness, was for someone to take my grief more seriously than I could. For them to tell me “your feelings are valid and it’s tough, let’s talk about it”.”
Recently, I listened to author Daisy Buchanan speaking on a webinar. She described the difficulty we have with giving or receiving comfort and advice. That we don’t have a shared language of pain. As a society, we don’t have the words to say “I’m sorry you’re hurting, that’s really hard, let’s sit with it”.
Whether it’s out of fear that engaging with negative feelings and showing true empathy will ‘lower our frequency’, or a lack of language with which we can acknowledge another person’s grief, we end up silencing our sadness and making do with empty words. Our incessant need to stay positive and deny unhappiness, and the trend of furiously ‘manifesting’ a better life reminds me a little too much of myself in that first year of university: determined to shut out any negativity and build a better me. What I really needed, in that year of buried sadness, was for someone to take my grief more seriously than I could. For them to tell me “your feelings are valid and it’s tough, let’s talk about it”.
Toxic positivity may be a new term, but it’s an old problem. It hides in the productivity porn that we endlessly consume. It’s in the advice that getting up as early as we can to drink celery juice will lead us to success, and in the idea that ‘making it’ means no days off. It lurks in the belief that a dream life can be ‘manifested’ just by thinking about it. And it’s there when we can’t help but give vague platitudes to a friend in pain.
So, next time a friend tells you that they’re not feeling strong, resist jumping to solutions or pushing a message of #goodvibesonly. Instead, try to acknowledge their pain and give them space to feel it without shame.
Let’s work on building that shared language of pain one word at a time, and in the rush to be our best selves, let’s never forget that an ordinary life is worth celebrating too.
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Betty is a writer and content marketer based in Dundee. You can find more of her writing at BesosBetty.com. @besos_betty