Toxic Positivity and the Pandemic


Positivity can't fix everything, and it's okay not to be okay.


Image source: Amy Cole

An Instagram post by @goodhumansonly advocating for seeing the good without ignoring pain.


Toxic positivity is the idea that anything can be solved by having a positive attitude. At face value, this may not sound like the worst thing. Positivity isn’t inherently harmful; genuine feelings of happiness, gratitude, and satisfaction are rewarding aspects of life. However, the idea that feeling negative emotions ruins the ‘vibe’ is where toxicity comes from.


Toxic positivity is becoming a part of our everyday language. It can be as simple as telling someone that smiling through it will make them feel better, or that they have to 'just stay positive'. It can also be telling someone 'never give up', 'you'll get over it' or 'it could be worse'. Telling someone to smile or to be positive doesn’t make the pain go away - it just increases the pressure to seem okay. It gives them something else to worry about, on top of what they’re already struggling with. It can be incredibly isolating to feel like you have to hide your emotions, not to mention the amount of shame that is fostered by this environment.


Toxic positivity doesn't just come from others; we can enforce this pressure on ourselves. It's so important to call ourselves out for denying our own feelings. You can feel sad and still be grateful for what you have; emotions are much more nuanced than that. Repressing emotions has been proven to make them harder to confront, and so it’s important to process things.


As a large-scale event surrounded by uncertainty, the pandemic has attracted a lot of toxic positivity. It seems as though everyone has it hard right now, which makes it really easy to feel guilty when you’re struggling. So many people have lost their jobs, their health, or their loved ones that our own struggles can seem small in comparison.


It's hard to find genuine positives in such a bleak situation, and so a lot of optimism is forced. There's been a huge push for productivity. The phrase ‘you'll never get this amount of free time again’ has been said countless times this year as a prod to work on hobbies or projects. This major oversimplification of events completely undermines the very real struggle being faced by absolutely everyone, guilt-tripping people to the point of burnout.


Notably, the pandemic isn’t the only event from the last year that has drawn attention to toxic positivity. Activist movements such as Black Lives Matter and, more recently, Reclaim the Night, have been getting deserved attention sparked by well-publicised murders, encouraging the general public to confront their role in systemic oppression. Examining racism and misogyny within our everyday lives can be uncomfortable. Some people who proclaim ‘not all men’ and ‘all lives matter’ may believe that they are bringing positivity to a conflicted time, but their comfort comes at the cost of perpetuating systemic harm. Even if they think they mean well, by dismissing real problems, they provide a platform for those with malicious intent to hide behind. This can also come in the form of tone policing people who are rightfully angry and hurting, criticising the unrest rather than the issues that caused it.


Similarly, disingenuous positivity can be seen in performative activism, in which people hop on the trending cause online without any real engagement. A poignant example of this is blackout Tuesday, when social media was flooded with black squares in support of the BLM movement.

However, these squares overwhelmed platforms and drowned out the marginalised voices it claimed to support. As the full extent of some people’s ‘activism’, this empty gesture is an example of toxic positivity; while it sounds good, it’s ultimately unhelpful.


One of the most difficult things about confronting toxic positivity is that the perpetrators are almost always well-meaning. It can be hard to tell people that actually it's okay that it's not okay. Some people really feel as though their relentless positive attitude has helped them, and they can become frustrated when you tell them it doesn’t help you.


The best antidote to toxic positivity is recognising that all feelings are valid. Discussing difficult topics doesn't necessarily have to create a 'negative' environment. It creates a safe space where people can feel free to express their emotions openly, which in turn can lead to more genuine positivity. This includes listening to people, especially those actually impacted by activist causes.


It's also important not to compare people. This is often said about the glossy lives people tend to show on social media, but it's true of problems too. Playing trauma Top Trumps isn't helpful to anyone. If it wasn’t okay to feel bad when others had it ‘worse’, then there would be only one person in the whole world who was allowed to feel sad: the person who had it worst. Apart from anything else, this doesn't actually make struggles any smaller.


When talking to others about their struggles, ask yourself: am I invalidating their feelings? Am I giving unsolicited advice? It's also important to only offer support that you are capable of giving. Empty offers of support can do damage to both parties, as there's the potential for you to be asked for support you can't physically or emotionally handle, and the other person can be left without the support you've led them to believe they can fall back on. Be honest if you don't know what to say; it's better than saying something untrue.