Helen’s Hot Takes: Problematic positivity

Columns Editor Helen Zhang ’22 discusses the importance of recognizing toxic positivity and how to avoid it.

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Xinmin Zhang

Columns Editor Helen Zhang ’22 discusses the importance of recognizing toxic positivity and how to avoid it.

Our society often portrays optimism as a virtuous trait for people to possess. We admire those who can see the bright side of every situation and stay positive through extreme struggles. 

However, there is a difference between being optimistic and having an excessively positive attitude. In fact, there are instances where positivity becomes toxic. According to the University of Washington School of Medicine, people display toxic positivity when they respond to a situation with false reassurances instead of being empathetic about someone’s negative feelings.

One example of toxic positivity in action is a response to the ongoing pandemic. Flowery, aesthetic social media posts that spew messages, such as “Just stay positive and keep going!” are tone-deaf and likely come from a place of privilege. Those who have lost their jobs or loved ones or face mental and physical health challenges have every right to be less-than-positive about their situation. Simply trying to be positive won’t erase their struggles, and it’s ignorant to belittle their experiences.

In a TEDx talk about toxic positivity, speaker Mahmoud Khedr stated, “Our language is so important.” The words we choose in response to someone’s suffering determines how validated and supported they feel. Instead of suggesting to your friend to stop being negative, you should remind them it’s normal to feel unpleasant emotions. You can be honest about being unsure of what to say, but just let them know you are here for them. 

Additionally, Khedr said that when we or someone we know is struggling, we shouldn’t mention that there is always someone who has it worse. It’s not wrong to be grateful, but telling yourself that you don’t have the right to be upset because another person out there is struggling more than you is damaging. 

The words we choose in response to someone’s suffering determines how validated and supported they feel.”

— Helen Zhang '22

Zoey Guo

The issue with toxic positivity is viewing negativity as a choice and something to be fixed. It can delegitimize mental health conditions such as depression, in which one cannot simply choose to be positive. When someone is physically injured, we wouldn’t tell them to just “feel better,” so the same should go for mental health struggles. Getting professional help is something to encourage when someone is struggling with their mental health, just like when someone is sick.

According to a YouTube video by psychiatrist Dr. Tracey Marks, the thought-stopping that toxic positivity promotes is ineffective. Trying to not think about something actually makes you think about it more. Also, Healthline says masking your feelings may put a strain on your relationships as others feel they don’t know who you truly are. Thus, it’s best to be honest with yourself and those around you about your feelings, even if they’re not on the happy side. 

Having diverse feelings is what makes us human and it’s okay to admit that something makes you feel bad. In fact, affective labeling, or naming the emotion you’re experiencing, can be beneficial. Furthermore, Scientific American reports, “Unpleasant feelings are just as crucial as the enjoyable ones in helping you make sense of life’s ups and downs.” Accepting our low moments allows us to better recognize our high ones.

In addition to using considerate language for others, you can avoid expressing toxic positivity toward yourself through resilience, which means accepting and working through your struggle while recognizing you don’t enjoy it. It’s also necessary to be clear about your intentions when you decide to open up to someone. Let the other person know if you want advice or simply a listening ear. On the other end, as the person listening, make sure you know what they need from you so you can be supportive in the best way possible. 

Toxic positivity usually comes from a place of good intentions; we want to help someone feel less upset and remind them to strive for happiness. However, it’s important to live honestly and not suppress the more difficult parts of the human experience. No matter what disturbs your mental health, it is always worth taking seriously. Recognizing and accepting when you are not okay are the first steps toward health and healing.