The current buzzword in the world of pop-psychology is ‘toxic positivity’. It is an effort to highlight the dangers of ‘good vibes only’, and how negative emotions cannot be avoided. I wholeheartedly agree with what the term stands for, but strongly disagree with the term ‘toxic positivity.’ For some, it might seem a mere semantic issue but I feel it is far more than that, and I shall try to elaborate how.
Toxic positivity has been defined as “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations” (Quintero & Long, 2019). Simply, it is a state of denial and reaction formation and even the authors mentioned above acknowledge this: “process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human experience.” Clearly, what we understand as toxic positivity is simply ego defense mechanisms (if you subscribe to Psychoanalytic thought) or forms of contact (if you subscribe to Gestalt thought). The question arises then- how did this term gain such traction is the past 2-3 years? The answer perhaps lies in our fondness of the term ‘toxic’.
The word ‘toxic’ has gained colloquial relevance, we tend to use it to describe almost everything that we don’t agree with or the ones that make us feel uncomfortable. Statements such as “that person is so toxic”, “your relationship seems very toxic”, “what you are doing is very toxic” can be observed in everyday conversations. I feel it is important to acknowledge my stand on calling out unhelpful & unhealthy behaviors: It is necessary and people must be held accountable for their actions. My issue is not with calling people out as much as it is with the colloquial use of the word ‘toxic’ because certain thoughts, emotions and actions are actually dangerous, harmful, unacceptable & unpleasant but do all behaviors fall under this category? If we were to look at it from a reductionist and top-down approach, the answer would be a clear yes.
It is when we adopt a bottom-up approach with an attitude of curiosity and nuanced understanding of the other person, we tend to truly understand what the other person’s behavior signifies. To elucidate, if someone is saying “good vibes only”, is there a possibility that they are either using denial as a defense mechanism or resistance as their form of contact? Another person might be living in a family or a system that never encouraged emotional expression and thereby the only way they can make sense of their life (both good and bad) is to engage in certain forms of behavior that are not necessarily helpful (here: being unrealistically positive or in denial). A third person is actually working on their denial and resistance to authentic experiences, this process is not linear and they might go back and forth with denial. Do all these instances warrant ‘toxicity’? I think not.
Semantically and psychologically positivity is associated with hope, confidence and an experience of being in control. I recognize how hope, confidence and control can also be unrealistic but it definitely is not toxic. We need to draw a line between faulty perceptions of the self and labeling those faulty perceptions as toxic.
When we label attitudes and perceptions as toxic positivity, we might not be engaging in a helpful behavior ourselves. Labelling something as toxic is unfortunately the easy way, understanding requires nuance, curiosity and openness to challenging our own thought.
With advent of the pandemic, we have seen a lot of people on various platforms focus on ‘good vibes only’, ‘let us focus on the positive’, and ‘let us be grateful for what we have’ etc. I do not condone such statements as they are insensitive, unhelpful and ignorant. Despite that I will not call them toxic because insensitivity or ignorance does not necessarily mean toxicity. What it does mean is that there is a huge gap that needs to be bridged through dialogue and sensitivity, labelling is reductionist and arm-chair activism. Such insensitive comments are not simply about the handful of people who put it out but rather is symbolic of society at large- it is easy to find scapegoats for societal problems.
Imagine this scenario: A healthcare worker has been working very had with their covid-19 duties, is exhausted and on the verge of burnout. The same worker has a wallpaper on their phone that says: “good vibes only”, it is something they truly believe in, especially given the situation they are in. Is this healthcare worker spreading toxic positivity? No. Are they burned-out, lack skills for emotional expression, lack space to express and are overwhelmed with fear of judgement that ultimately leads to this form of contact? High possibility that is the case. In this example I am not encouraging ‘good vibes only’ attitude, I am acknowledging the possibility of nuance; my intention is for us to look beyond the obvious.
We have a big communication and emotional expression problem in our society, and the lack of safe spaces where we can express does not help either. Interpersonal communication is a skill that we are unfortunately not taught but rather suppression and denial is encouraged. Here again, I highlight a societal problem rather than an individualistic one, or those limited to only a group of people.
Lastly, I would like to acknowledge that it is not all of our duty to listen and attempt to understand the nuances of others’ way of being all the time; so many of us might not have the bandwidth for that. My intention here has been to demystify a colloquial use of a term which focuses on the peripheries of human behavior; to simply encourage (if you can) to look at each other beyond what is obvious.
We like to think we are conscious beings but a lot of what we do, say or feel is not so conscious. We are systemic humans after all.
Quintero, S., & Long, J. (2019). Toxic positivity: The dark side of positive vibes. The Psychology Group. Retrieved from https://thepsychologygroup.com/toxicpositivity/Learn More