Thanks, but no thanks. – Thoughts on toxic positivity

Being thankful and mindful is all well and good. But there’s more to it than just “thinking positive thoughts”.  Otherwise, toxic positivity might just make things harder.

 

All right now, listen here. I’m not trying to accuse anyone of anything.

But lately, say for the last few months, even before this whole Corona-induced madness started, I have been noticing an increase in people jumping on the mindfulness- and thankfulness-train. And to be entirely honest, it worries me.

Especially over on Facebook and Instagram, the only Social Media sites I frequent, a lot of people are spreading the „positive vibes“. That in itself is actually a good thing. Decades of research have shown that practicing mindfulness is conducive to an increased mental wellbeing. Take a look at John Kabat-Zinn’s work, he’s been at it since the 70s.

The problem I have with a lot (not all) of these „positive people“ is that they seem just ever so slightly off when they try to be thankful even in the face of the worst twists of fate. Something just rubs me the wrong way with how they spread this positivity.

Why? Because they seem to be missing a step.

It is commendable wanting to make the best of even the worst situation, I won’t dispute that. Overcoming negativity is part of moving on from them.

But it is also an integral part, the integral part, of mindfulness to let one’s feelings, whatever their nature, come and go however they please, and to accept them before letting them go, or changing them for the better if need be. That however, means that anger, happiness, grief, frustration and elation alike, the good and the bad, have to be noticed and acknowledged before anything might be done with them. Also, re-framing negative feelings (as they might be induced by a global pandemic…) oftentimes doesn’t happen overnight. It might take a while until one might, with some time, gain perspective on the event and its consequences, so one might evaluate what has been learnt from it.

The feeling I often get when seeing those pastel-coloured, flowery, seemingly inspirational „be happy“-quotations on Social Media is that, instead of allowing themselves a brief bout with negativity before working on it, a lot of these people seem to think a „good vibes only“-mentality is enough.

Which, of course, it is not. They simply skip that whole bothersome business of listening to their negative emotions and “forbid” themselves from having them at all. Instead of letting themselves feel shitty for a while, they immediately bound into the realm of “being thankful for destiny’s challenge”.

I’m sorry to say it, guys, but that’s not how mindfulness and thankfulness work!

No-one can help having negative emotions, and slathering them with pastel positivity merely serves to hide them, and cover them up. That doesn’t mean you’ve dealt with them and achieved the never-ending happiness you are so eagerly striving for. It might even mean that you are simply pushing something that should be dealt with away.

It must be that happiness, this ultimate symbol of status, that drives some of us into doing the „always happy“-charade. Fake it till you make it, right? If you pretend you are happy for long enough, happiness might just come on its own?

Nu-uh. It’s sure not coming if you keep play-acting to yourself and your friends (and followers).

If you really want to be that self-reflected being you make out to be, the one that grows with every challenge they face – drop the act, and deal with your feelings. Don’t let yourself be trapped into what is called “toxic positivity”.

For my part, I am always thankful (and I mean it) for people that let me (or the world, if they have a public Instagram account) see when they are struggling. It lets me know I am not alone. Who knows, someone else’s coping might help me get my own coping game on.

Practice mindfulness, if you want. Practice thankfulness, if you want. It’ll do you good. Write your „3 things I am grateful for today“-lists. Meditate. Hell, share inspirational, pastel-coloured „be happy“-quotes – they might come in handy, as sweet little reminders to be thankful of the little things (or big things, or middle things). But be aware of the mechanisms behind the whole thing – there’s more to it than just “thinking positive thoughts”. And there’s gonna be people out there who will know whether you are sincere or not. And if they call you on your BS, be thankful for them, too.

 

by Svenja Plannerer

Illustration Svenja Plannerer