“Everything Will Be Fine!”: Will It Really? Let’s Talk about Toxic Positivity


“Everything Will Be Fine!”: Will It Really? Let’s Talk about Toxic Positivity

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

When I was 10 and on stage for an elocution competition in school, I was so nervous, I froze, spat out the Vicks tablet I was savouring, and then ran down crying. It was humiliating for sure, but my teacher tried to calm me down by saying that I shouldn’t cry and instead look at the bright side. “At least you tried. It is all going to be fine… it always does,” she assured me and I believed her. The words stayed with me and I grew up with unrealistic expectations always convincing myself that everything would be just fine. Sadly for me, it didn’t.

Back home, I was told that if I wanted to be a good girl, I should not get angry or display my emotions. It was something ingrained in me. So year’s later, when I was hopping mad at a man I was dating for not being honest, I just kept mum and internalised everything I was feeling. I kept telling myself, “It’ll be okay” and “I was better off without him”. I did not give myself the chance to come to terms with what I was actually feeling – hurt and cheated. What I did instead was pretend to be absolutely fine because I thought that no one wanted to be around someone who was not happy.

We often convince ourselves to be upbeat and put on a brave face. We force ourselves to throw a positive light on a bad situation and this has become such a habit that we impose it on others. When you are mourning the loss of someone or something, you are told not to cry; when you are angry at someone and want to vent, you are asked to keep calm.  All throughout our lives we are constantly told not to feel the emotions we want to feel at that moment, unless they are happy emotions. But the truth is that we have a whole range of other feelings – anger, sadness, disgust, and fear – and it is important to deal with them. It’s okay to feel low or livid, dejected or disappointed; it’s okay not to be okay. What’s unacceptable is to pretend to be otherwise.

Unfortunately, the pressure to be cheerful gets to most of us. In fact, the “positive vibes only” clan has been on an overdrive during this pandemic. When the world is grim and uncertain and everything unfolding around us triggers so much anxiety, these stubborn sunshine-chasers like to advocate hopefulness – like making Dalgona coffee, baking banana bread even as the pandemic rages on.

Unfortunately, the pressure to be cheerful gets to most of us.

When I was struggling to get work sometime last April, my friends would keep asking me to cheer up and social media was overflowing with posts on seeing the bright side of things. It made me want to tear my hair out. That’s not what I needed at the time; all the assurances felt untruthful. While I’m certain their heart is in the right place, forcing positivity onto someone can feel suffocating. It’s like invalidating people’s stress and denying them of their agency to truly express themselves.

This 24X7 all-is-well attitude is famously labelled as “toxic positivity” by psychologists who claim that anything in excess, even optimism, can be harmful. According to American psychotherapist Carolyn Karoll, “Judging yourself for feeling pain, sadness, jealousy – which are part of the human experience and are transient emotions — leads to what are referred to as secondary emotions, such as shame, that are much more intense and maladaptive.”

So every time I told myself “it’ll be fine” and things didn’t look up or friends and family assured me that I would get work if I stayed positive but no assignments came my way, I’d feel shameful and further start doubting myself. I thought I was being weak and felt stupid for wanting to be sad. The constant bombardment of positvity – it could be motivational quotes or cat videos on WhatsApp – was of no real help. It provided momentary distraction but doing this repeatedly only left me with unprocessed emotions over time.

I decided to embrace my negative emotions and it felt cathartic.

So some three months ago, I decided to not run away from my negative emotions. I weeped, I wrote down about how gloomy I was feeling, and vented about how angry I was that some people have it so easy. When a friend texted me, “How was I doing”, I decided to be honest and tell her I wasn’t alright. And when another asked me to chin up, I said I wasn’t in the mood. I didn’t need someone to tell me to be positive or that everything will work out fine. I just needed someone to hear me out; someone who said, “I get you. It sucks to not have work right now.”

But since no family or friend would tell me that, I decided to embrace my negative emotions and it felt cathartic. It was liberating to stop pretending to be okay for once.

The truth is that we need sorrow as much as we need joy. So stop the pretence, let yourself mope. You can start like how I started – by unfollowing an Instagram influencer whose every post comes with that annoying hashtag – positivevibesonly.