Toxic positivity could make a bad situation worse

I am all for optimism and positivity, but not for the kind that is only professed outwardly to create superficial impressions



By Asha Iyer Kumar

Published: Tue 2 Aug 2022, 9:10 PM

Precisely two weeks after I tested positive for Covid, I am still reeling under its after effects. Something that was expected to pass with some sniffles and whoops kicked in moderate symptoms, grounding me harder than I had expected. I am now a ‘long hauler’ with the effects spilling over many days and it is beginning to impact me. Not just physically, but mentally as well.

How can something that most people now dismiss as a brief flu-like illness take me down so badly? The brain fog, the extreme tiredness, the day-long sleeping – are they real consequences of the virus or am I imagining them and giving myself a pretext to slump and shut down? Am I supposed to spell out my discomforts or pretend that it’s all fine and dandy when people check on me?

The need to look and feel good has never before been so compulsive, because it is what is expected, or so I’d believe. It now makes me want to undermine my condition and present an unequivocally positive outlook. It forces me to brush off my fatigue and get back on track even when the body and mind aren’t relenting. I don’t want to be seen as listless, whining, and pessimistic; so I drape myself in a weird sense of positivity that is at odds with reality and keep reiterating that I am well, even when I am not.

This, for all those who haven’t heard about it, is Toxic Positivity – a behavioural pattern that forces us to hide our true feelings and state, and put up a sunny demeanour for all to see and agree. While there are no two ways about how optimism is a prerequisite to get by in these dire times, I am also impelled to consider the hazards of being overly positive, to the point of handing out platitudes to ourselves and to others that might only result in increasing our personal suffering. Further, our defiance and refusal to look reality in the eye keeps us mired in our secret misery and prevents us from seeking right solutions.

Our distorted ideas of a happy state of mind and its indispensability in our lives have probably invalidated authentic human emotions and experiences. It often forces us into denial, making us cover up our unhappiness and endure it in silence because there is an inner urgency for us to be seen as optimistic human beings who are brimming with positive vibes.

But the truth is we cannot be happy and be exuding cheer perpetually, for life has a habit of handing us lemons more often than we would like. Life doesn’t get any better when we repress emotions, mask feelings and hide our struggles for the sake of ‘looking good’ to others. If anything, it makes us doubt our truths, makes us phony, and over time, it manifests in physical and mental illnesses.

Of what worth then is this travesty of joy in our face when the heart is smouldering inside? We really don’t enjoy the company of people who will not brook anything but a heightened, often fabricated sense of positivity around them. Such social expectations can make people who are taking the hard knocks isolate themselves and shrink into anonymous corners because ‘the need to be happy’ is more agonizing than their personal agonies themselves.

When things are going south, we needn’t feel ashamed and throw a blanket over it. We needn’t hide in closets when our emotions are getting the better of us. We needn’t consider our feelings unbecoming and stifle them in our chests. We needn’t pretend to flourish when times are tough. Above all, we needn’t feed ourselves with clichés, feel-good quotes and positive perspectives all the time.

Instead, let us learn to take an informed look at our experiences and the real emotions they evoke and accept them as transient but true. Instead of dismissing them as unhealthy and uncool, let us acknowledge their existence, come to terms with them and find viable ways around them. And on the other side, let us not chastise those who openly speak about their suffering as chronically despairing and be reductionistic about it. They feel comforted when we validate their emotions and experiences and accept them as part of being human.

I am all for optimism and positivity, but not for the kind that is only professed outwardly to create superficial impressions. If my positivity will make me blind to my reality, there is little chance that I will ever be out of the woods. If I am hurting, I might as well say it and express hope that it will soon ease than lying that all is good. As renowned Psychiatrist Carl Jung said, ‘I’d rather be whole than good.’

Asha Iyer Kumar is a Dubai-based author, children’s writing coach and youth motivational speaker.


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