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“Choose happiness!” “Stay positive!” “Look on the bright side!” “Good vibes only!”
Do any of these phrases sound familiar to you? If you’re like me and have been spending a little too much time (more like a lot… a lot of time) on social media to combat quarantine boredom, you might have been seeing sentiments of encouragement like these frequently being shared on any and every social media platform. The pandemic blues are unfortunately ever so prevalent right now, so there’s no harm in spreading positivity, right? Well… sort of.
- Mia Woo
Phrases like these can actually do more harm than good. That’s because they perpetuate something called toxic positivity. Basically, it’s this notion that we should be happy and have a positive mindset all the time because negative thoughts and feelings are inherently dangerous.
I fear I may have lost you a little there. So maybe an analogy will help: Toxic positivity is like having too much dessert. Desserts are great, and lots of people feel better when they eat them, but you will inevitably get sick if you eat too much. It’s also like making someone eat dessert when they don’t want to. That wouldn't make them feel better. The key is a healthy balance. You need your fruits and vegetables, too.
Toxic positivity has been around a lot longer than COVID-19, but during this pandemic, toxic positivity can and has manifested itself in posts about how to take advantage of quarantine, how to thrive in lockdown, how to be extra productive at home, etc. But we are living through an abnormally stressful time right now. And when we get stressed, our brains can feel “full.” So sometimes we just don’t have the brain space or the energy to tackle something like learning a brand new skill.
Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations and grief. Yes, grief. This is not just a stressful time, but a somber one. Whether you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, a job, or your pre-pandemic life, that’s okay. Grief is a normal response to loss. So feeling “negative” emotions doesn’t mean you’re defective, or that there’s something wrong with you, or that you just “aren’t being positive enough.” It means that you’re human, because emotions like sadness, anger, or anxiety are all part of the human experience. By letting ourselves fully recognize, acknowledge, and accept these emotions, we can process them properly.
- Mia Woo
So how does one avoid that toxic mindset? There are a few steps I’ve been taking to do so. For one, even though I’ve been talking about the harmful effects of toxic positivity, positivity in and of itself can be a great thing. But I’ve realized that it’s important to be realistic, especially when it comes to my accomplishments during quarantine. It could be something as simple as making it through this online semester, or something bigger. For example, when our semester first went online last spring, I managed to write and illustrate my own children’s book in less than three months for a class project!
I try to celebrate the “little victories,” too, as trivial as eating a meal, because sometimes big tasks feel overwhelming. I try to be gentle with myself by not expecting to function as I normally would pre-pandemic, because life isn’t normal right now. I haven’t really picked up any new skills during quarantine. And that’s okay. I ask myself, “Would I have been learning this or doing this if there wasn’t a pandemic going on right now?” If the answer is no, which it is most of the time, I don’t put that pressure on myself. It isn’t realistic for everyone to learn a bunch of new skills at the moment.
I also remind myself of a basic rule when I venture into social media: however happy someone might look in their posts, you’re seeing what they want you to see, which more often than not is “their best self.” People don’t tend to post the bad stuff. What you see on someone’s post is only a tiny fraction of what their lives are actually like, so I try to avoid comparing myself to what I’m seeing online because it isn’t an accurate comparison. Also, if someone’s content makes me feel icky in any way, I unfollow. You’re in control of your own feed!
Lastly, I make sure to practice empathy, both with myself and others. I think it’s important to be a little extra gentle right now. I try my best to be aware of the language I use and tell myself, “If I wouldn’t have a certain expectation for someone else during this really stressful time, I won’t have that expectation for myself.”