Good vibes only: the harmful effects of toxic positivity by Sarah Jackson
Sarah Jackson explores the debated topic of toxic positivity and ways to neutralise it.
Firstly, I want to thank Ria for allowing me to be a part of the lovely Matriarch community and giving me the space to platform my thoughts! I have wanted to write about this topic for a while but have always struggled to find the words. Whilst I am by no means an expert, I hope this might be a useful starting point in helping you understand the harmful effects of toxic positivity.
What is toxic positivity?
Many of you may have come across the term ‘toxic positivity’ before, but might be a bit confused as to what it actually means. As defined by @the.doodle.project, it is “the belief that no matter how difficult a situation is, one should always maintain a positive mindset.” Put simply, it is the denial and invalidation of a person’s feelings and emotions under the guise of ‘positivity’. Although usually meant with good intentions, telling someone to be positive when they are going through a difficult time can often do more harm than good.
For example, you may have previously been told to “look on the bright side” or that “things could be worse”. Phrases like these are invalidating; telling someone that something they are finding hard “could be worse” implies that they are overreacting and that their feelings are not worth discussing. Whilst it is often helpful to focus on the positive aspects of a situation, denying the existence of negative feelings can be harmful – it is possible to feel the ‘good’ emotions (happiness, joy, gratitude, etc.) whilst also acknowledging the ‘bad’ ones (anger, sadness, fear, etc.).
Positivity itself is not a damaging thing, trying to find the good on bad days can be really helpful; but it is when positivity is used to deny the existence of ‘negative’ feelings that it becomes harmful.
‘Good Vibes Only’
A common example of toxic positivity is the phrase “good vibes only”, a seemingly innocent reminder to maintain a positive mindset. In an interview for Jameela Jamil’s podcast ‘I Weigh’ (linked below), optimism coach Dr Deepika Chopra warned against the dangers of the “good vibes only” mantra, arguing that to focus on the “good vibes” alone is unrealistic because we are all “built to experience the full range of human emotion”.
Alongside reminders to “be the energy you want to attract”, the “good vibes only” mantra has become part of a damaging narrative: that we should block out the ‘bad’ things and focus only on what we experience as ‘good’. Toxic positivity encourages us to believe that being ‘fine’ is not enough; we are expected to aim for emotional perfection, to ignore our ‘negative’ feelings and search for the sometimes non-existent positives in every situation. Denying the existence of ‘bad’ emotions and focusing only on the ‘good’ ones leaves little room for conversations about important subjects such as grief or mental illness. Avoiding discussions about topics like these can make people feel guilty for feeling these ‘bad’ emotions. Even when we are going through something really difficult, toxic positivity holds us to an impossibly high emotional standard.
Rather than putting pressure on ourselves to be happy all the time, we should recognise that our ability to feel such a huge variety of emotions is not a weakness, but a strength. I think Dr Chopra’s point is so important in reminding us that we should not feel guilty for feeling – emotions are what make us human. How can we ever understand what happiness feels like if we never experience sadness?
What is neutrality?
I first came across ‘neutrality’ as part of the body positivity movement. In response to a narrative that promotes radical and undisputed self-love, neutrality focuses on acceptance. In the words of body positive influencer Sherry Ivy (@sherryivy_),
“[…] it’s okay if you want to aim for neutrality. To get to a place where you love yourself enough to recognise all the amazing things your body does and that’s where it ends. You don’t have to adore every inch of your body. That doesn’t have to be the goal.”
In other words, body neutrality is giving yourself permission to accept your body, even when you cannot love it.
Using Sherry’s definition as a starting point, we can start to see how emotional neutrality might be used to combat the negative effects of toxic positivity. Characterised by Dr Chopra as a “valuable, underrated emotional state of being”, neutrality is allowing yourself the freedom to feel whatever you need to feel. It is learning to accept and process all of your emotions without labelling them as ‘good’ or bad’.
Being ‘neutral’ does not mean feeling nothing. Instead, starting each day in a neutral headspace should relieve you of the pressure of favouring certain emotions, and suppressing others. It is so important to remind yourself that you will feel different emotions every day, and it is not possible to feel a single emotion (e.g. happiness) all the time.
How do I practice neutrality?
In the wake of the year-that-shall-not-be-named, neutrality seems especially important. Faced with a third lockdown and what feels like weeks without sun, most of us are struggling in one way or another. Some days you might find it easy to be positive, to look towards the future and find hope; other days you might feel helpless and overwhelmed, and sometimes you might not feel very much at all. We are all experiencing an huge amount of confusion, fear, and uncertainty as we collectively mourn the loss of normality. It is okay to feel uncomfortable, restless, angry, hopeless, and it is okay to sit in these feelings rather than pushing them away.
Toxic positivity has taught us to believe that feeling these ‘negative’ emotions means that we have failed. We are expected to ignore, diminish, or deny our feelings for fear of making others uncomfortable, or coming across as overly sensitive or emotional. It is so important to remember that despite this longstanding belief system, no one should ever feel guilty for feeling.
Often when friends or family confide in you they are looking for someone to listen to them and to offer comfort and support, rather than practical advice. When a friend comes to you with a problem, as them what they need from you; remind them that it is okay if they are upset, and that their feelings are valid. Show them that you are listening to them and that you care about what they are saying. Creating a safe space for those close to you to discuss their emotions is a great way to combat the culture of silence created by toxic positivity.
When things feel overwhelming, remember to keep checking in with yourself – ask yourself “how am I really feeling in this moment?”. Be kind to yourself – try and recognise your emotions and sit with them, rather than pushing them away. I usually find journaling or doing something creative can be a really helpful way of processing how I am feeling. Give yourself the freedom to feel whatever emotions come your way. Reach out to those you trust if you need support.
Look for happiness where you can, but don’t force yourself to be ‘positive’ when you are struggling.
If you need support, please reach out:
Student Minds https://www.studentminds.org.uk/
Find out more:
Jameela Jamil’s Interview with Dr Deepika Chopra https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/i-weigh-with-jameela-jamil/id1498855031?i=1000504675859