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Toxic Positivity
Illustration Callum Abbott

How ‘toxic positivity’ took over the internet

‘Stay positive’ and ‘be kind’ are the pandemic’s most prominent platitudes and pastel-hued Instagram highlights – but here’s why an obsession with positive thinking is damaging our collective mental health

TextSara RadinIllustrationCallum Abbott

The pandemic has given rise to a wave of toxic positivity. How could positivity, you might wonder, be considered a bad thing? “It’s the overgeneralisation of being happy or optimistic in all situations no matter how dire they may be,” explains psychotherapist Elizabeth Beecroft, LMSW. “Toxic positivity is similar to a ‘good vibes only’ mindset, where people believe that no matter how difficult or stressful a situation is, one should try to maintain a positive mindset,” she explains. But it can often be an insincere mindset that causes more harm than good.

“Toxic positivity is the trend in which we see people avoiding and suppressing the experience of so-called negative emotions like grief, anxiety, and depression in favour of surface-level, positive emotions,” says Carrera Kurnick, Culture Director at trend forecasting agency Fashion Snoops. Slogans of this movement are things like ‘look on the bright side’ or ‘be grateful for what you have’.

How did we get here?

Though it has been around for quite some time, Beecroft says this mindset has surged during the pandemic. Why? “Our need to control and avoidance of uncertainty has played a role in this trend of toxic positivity resulting in an influx of messages such as ‘find the silver lining’, ‘just be positive’, ‘change your outlook and find gratitude’, and so many more sentiments along those lines.” For some, the response to a global pandemic was to be overly positive and optimistic, which results in avoidance of experiencing the painful emotions that come with the reality of the situation. “With avoidance comes a lack of acceptance and that is harmful,” Beecroft says.

Social media has played a major role in this. “Social media is often a highlight reel – where people are typically more inclined to post the positives in their lives rather than the not-so-positive realities we all experience at times,” says Beecroft. The toxic positivity trend took over social media throughout the pandemic. “It seemed that there were a lot of people who were more inclined to post toxic positivity statements and aesthetically pleasing graphics, rather than facing the painful reality of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she offers, explaining there were a lot of messages on social media telling people to ‘use this time wisely’ or ‘learn a new skill’.

This, the psychotherapist explains, created immense pressure on us to be productive, which can make people feel shame, isolated, flawed, inadequate, or suppress their emotions if their reality did not match up to these messages. “Most people were trying to just get through each day without crying or experiencing debilitating anxiety or depression, only to go on social media and see messages telling them to ‘just be positive’.”

“Social media influencers that have created a business of selling products online have an incentive to promote positivity” – Carrera Kurnik, culture director at Fashion Snoops 

Kurnik says Instagram's “flex culture” – in which people seek to show their best lives – has come to a head with toxic positivity. “Social media influencers that have created a business of selling products online have an incentive to promote positivity,” she explains. “Brands don’t want to work with negative or pessimistic ambassadors or have them represent their product.” The trend forecaster adds that we often buy a product based on its perceived ability to solve our problems, or make us happier. “Social media markets thrive on positivity and thus we see toxically optimistic outlooks frequently adopted.” 

So, how do we deal with this?

It's important to remember, Beecroft says, that we can't choose the emotions we feel – but we can choose to allow ourselves to feel them, accept them, and use our coping tools to help stay grounded and present in those moments. “Try to stay realistic with yourself and avoid comparing your behind the scenes to someone else’s highlight reel by removing the expectation that you’re supposed to be ‘happy’ or that you're supposed to ‘see the bright side of things’ in all situations,” she says. “Try to not avoid your feelings and sit with them, both the positive and negative ones.” Healthy positivity isn’t an ‘all-or-nothing’ type of experience, she adds. It is possible to feel multiple conflicting emotions at once. So, practice identifying the toxic positivity messages, which will help increase awareness and not prompt you to dismiss your authentic emotions.

“At Fashion Snoops we are continuing to speak about the emotional wellness trend that focuses on the importance of proper emotional care for experiences like grief, loss, and anxiety,” says Kurnik. This wellness movement supports that so-called negative emotions are not inherently bad and should be given the space to be fully experienced. “We see people looking to engage with wellness therapies that allow them to feel the full range of life's emotions without papering over them with surface-level optimism.” 

What could a world that is more authentic and realistic and less about perfection or optimism 24/7 look like?

“I would hope that it would look like more shared vulnerability and the ability to share our deepest, truest, parts of ourselves with one another,” says Beecroft. It would look like more self awareness, insight, empathy, confidence, and a true understanding of who we are and what we believe in. “The pressure to be perfect leads to a lot of people straying away from who they truly are at their core, which limits their ability to grow, evolve, and fully express themselves.”

In her work as a trend forecaster, Kurnik says the emotional authenticity trend has been a major factor behind the rise of TikTok and meme culture in general. “On TikTok, Gen Z content often tackles subjects like depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and loss in humorous or sarcastic tones to create a kind of collective catharsis.” Many cite TikTok’s “emotional realism” as a key reason why the platform speaks to them over the flex culture and glossy inspirational lives of Instagram. “The fact that we’re even naming toxic positivity is a sign that people are wondering what a more emotionally authentic online and offline community may look like."