Notes on Toxic Positivity

Yep, that’s the one. The insidious #GoodVibesOnly, faux-content feeling that emanates from all manner of social media pages. But how could positivity be toxic?! I hear you ask. Easily, as it turns out. Really, really easily.

On the whole, positivity is just that: positive. It is generally nothing but a good thing to embrace your inner optimist, look for the best in people and situations, and endeavour to be positive wherever possible. But let’s be real here: it isn’t always possible.


So what is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity is a social media contagion, born out of good intentions but with the end result being that people aren’t always allowed to be honest about feeling down, or the things they think are sh*t.  #GoodVibesOnly might as well read #KiddingMyself – or #DontCallMeOnYourBadDays.

People don’t choose to have negative thoughts or feelings. They just happen. Because not everything is awesome, and sometimes people are dickheads. And most people don’t set out to be dickheads – sometimes you make a bad call, and lo and behold, inadvertently, you have been a dickhead. It happens.

Chasing eternal happiness and perfection has actually been shown to make us feel even worse when we do have negative feelings – yikes. That, instead of just acknowledging that human beings all have a broad spectrum of emotions and behaviours, which need to be thought about and worked through on a daily basis. As Psychology Today put it, ‘Many people swear by positive thinking, but few people are helped by it.’

sangkhlaburi thailand

What does toxic positivity look like?

Exhibit A: inspirational/motivational content about avoiding people in your life who don’t make you feel good. In theory, fine. Who needs those guys anyway? In practice, this creates a number of issues. Prime examples include:

  • People who struggle with their mental health, who may already feel like a burden at times, now see that you don’t really want to hang out with people who make you feel sad / bad / worried. So they don’t reach out when they need support.
  • Oh and now you’re embedding it in your own mind that if you’re having a grey day, it’s probably best to bottle it up and squash it down – because you’re a beacon of positivity! Good Vibes Only! Must. Not. Be. Negative. Ever.
  • You also cut out people who challenge the things you do or say – because it doesn’t feel good to be told that you’re behaving badly, or that you could do better. Oh right, because it’s not like you wanted to grow as a person, is it. Hmm.

As one person put it, “‘Don’t be negative’ has come to mean: don’t think critically, don’t feel, don’t bring your trauma near me, don’t ask for help.”
It’s all very well wanting to take everything life throws at you with a smile and a skip in your step, but pretending that you live in a bubble of joy, bliss and rapture isn’t as healthy as the GoodVibeTribe would have you believe. Fake it ’til you make it does not work within the human brain.

Vietnam Sleeper Bus tabby farrar

This feels like a good time for this photo of me in 2016, giving a double thumbs up after 17 sleepless hours on this Vietnamese ‘sleeper’ bus.

Wait – too much positivity can make you feel… worse?

Oh yes. Demanding that only happy people and positive thoughts come your way feels like it ought to be the recipe for an easy life, but sadly, it ain’t.

Even outside of social media, things like self-help books can exacerbate the issue. In an old Newsweek article on the “Tyranny of positive thinking“, there are interesting notes on the connection between motivational literature and increased feelings of failure, or of being somehow ‘defective’ for not managing to be positive and productive at all times.

In an age where suicide is the biggest killer of young men, can we afford to write off toxic positivity as just another silly social media fad?

Around 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience mental health problems at some point in their life, and 1 in 5 will have suicidal thoughts. Being force-fed ‘inspirational’ posts about simply waving goodbye to negativity, and updates from friends seeking only positive dialogue, is no comfort in times of need. And if you are posting that kind of content, what are you hiding from?
Mental Health cartoon

Switching off from social media

Don’t get me wrong here – I like posting photos of my dinner on Instagram as much as the next millennial. But the less time you spend on social media, the less fakery and toxic behaviour you can be exposed to. I’m not saying you can avoid it entirely – we do all still exist in the real world, after all. But research keeps showing that Facebook and Twitter are making us all more stressed and more depressed, and if your friends won’t stop posting toxic positivity bulls**t, the simplest solution is to step away from their social profiles.

There are benefits to social media, otherwise we wouldn’t all be spending hours a day on it. It can be a way to connect with other people who are going through the same things as you, to stay connected to faraway friends, and to have on-the-minute news from anywhere in the world.

While celebrating other people’s successes and sharing their joy can help to lift our spirits, the idea that we shouldn’t also share our struggles and worries is, frankly, absurd. I’m sure that many people who share posts about avoiding people who don’t fill you with joy and energy would say ‘But of course I don’t mean that my friends can’t come to me when they’re sad! Of course they can tell me when I’m being a dick!’ but the point is, you’re literally telling people that they can’t do that.
No-negativity posts might not put some people off, but for those struggling with anxieties and poor mental health, it can be enough to turn a grey day into a very black one indeed.

2015 Summer tabby farrar

Contrary to online appearances, I do not spend all my summers sandwiched between bikini-clad women in the sunshine

Remembering that it’s all bullsh*t anyway

I’m not allowed in GoodVibesOnly club for a number of reasons. That heading is just one of them.

Social media is bullsh*t. It really is. And I say that as someone who still hasn’t deleted Twitter or Facebook because I like creeping on foreign news and seeing what events are on in my city. I still see people being arseholes to each other on a daily basis as a result, but I’m far less active than I ever used to be and much happier for it.

It’s hard to do when everything’s gone to hell and someone you ought to be able to share it with is pretending to live on a sunshiney rainbow, but try to remember that social media really is a load of crap. We all use it, we all get good and bad things from it. But if it’s going to be a place where we post about our everyday lives, it ought to be a place where we can reach out regardless of whether we’re going to leave someone feeling uplifted as a result or not.

Look for the good in people and things, try to find the light in dark situations, work on letting go of the things that don’t really matter and learning when to shrug off the things you cannot change. But whatever you do, says I, some idiot with a blog, don’t let toxic positivity grind you down. We all have bad days, and we shouldn’t have to suck that up for anyone – no matter how much they may try to avoid having their positivity bubble burst.

Check out my posts on easy-to-adopt wellness habits and meditation tips for the easily distracted, if you’re looking to get more zen.

5 thoughts on “Notes on Toxic Positivity

  1. James Diamond says:

    An important observation on one of the key factors behind depression caused by social media. I’m sure I’ll refer back to this time and time again, if only for the irony of making a post about toxic positivity and littering it with pictures of bliss and bikini-clad women.

  2. classicjish says:

    I just happened to stumble across your blog and I am so glad that I did! I so agree with what you’ve written. Toxic positivity doesn’t address the underlying issue, it merely puts a mask over it.
    In fact, I had recently written a post about the same. Perhaps you would be interested in reading it and offering your opinions!
    Nonetheless, great post! Keep blogging!

  3. Kes says:

    I liken social media to the pub. I wouldn’t walk into a pub packed with all my friends on a saturday night and start telling them all what a hard time i’m having so i don’t expect to see people pouring their hearts out on social either. However, i never forget that there could be people in that pub who’re having a hard time and that they could just be putting on a front for appearances. What is it about social that’s different to the pub? Is it because social is always there reminding us? If we were in the pub every day surrounded by people supposedly having a great time, could that have the same effect?

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