Every once in a while, the popular culture calls BS on a phenomenon in a refreshing backlash. I’ve been hearing “toxic positivity” mentioned a lot lately, and I love it!
I remember the positive-thinking bandwagon as a product of the 1970s—possibly as an offshoot of the hippie movement, but it’s probably always been around. I just got old enough to observe it during that time. It really took off during the early days of the internet, when The Celestine Prophecy was a bestseller and the self-help book section at Border’s expanded into the surrounding aisles.
The Internet is fertile ground for vacuous new-age memes declaring that it’s all about attitude. Now, I don’t dispute that attitude matters, and can make the difference between success and failure, but to think that we can all control our destinies with positivity is just magical thinking. Worse, it leads to victim-blaming. If you die of cancer, it’s because you didn’t visualize hard enough to make your good cells kill your bad cells. If your business fails in a tough market, it’s because you didn’t attract prosperity and manifest your own success.
I can remember years ago, when I was struggling to get through college, explaining to an exchange student why it was so hard for me to get financial aid. The student said, “If you really want it badly enough, you will find a way.” He said it severely, as if to say, “If you don’t find a way, it’s because you’re lazy and don’t really want to succeed.” That student may have overcome huge barriers to get to the University of Montana from Lebanon, but that didn’t give him the right to assume I didn’t have any barriers of my own, or that they were less significant because I’m in the USA. But all this positive-thinking claptrap legitimizes that way of talking.
My former neighbors had a fight that was so noisy and violent, the police were called. The next day, someone left a magnet on their door, one of those cutesy Mary Engelbreit ones, with a girl standing with her hands on her hips, saying “Snap out of it!” There is no context in which that sentiment wouldn’t be annoying, but this was especially awful. These were sad, drug-involved, poorly educated people. You don’t just “snap out of” that. That’s what toxic positivity is about, though, the notion that you can change reality by how you think about it. It’s true to some extent—you can often improve reality by working on your attitude, but toxic positivity oversimplifies the process, gives too much credit to magical thinking, and erases the person it’s used on.
Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an excellent book called Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. In her chapter called Pink Ribbon Culture, she rants about how cancer is almost celebrated in October with the pink-ribbon schtick, and the rah-rah atmosphere at events like Relay for Life. It is good to be positive, but overdoing it can make a person with cancer feel like her suffering is not legitimate. It becomes unsafe to admit to pain or fear, and repression never helps anyone get better.
Positivity becomes toxic when it fails to process the legitimate underlying emotions judged to be “negative.” Negative feelings are ignored and repressed. Emotions are complex, though, and using mindless positivity to shove “negative” feelings aside will lock you into a zero growth pattern. Grief is real, regret is real, even shame. Those emotions are our teachers, and mindlessly positive people are cutting class.
People with invisible disabilities are a favored target of toxic positivity. We look fine, why all the stinkin’ thinkin’? Turn that frown upside down and get back in the game. Are you cringing yet? We’ve all had our feelings diminished and even been shamed for them. There is a balance to be struck between suffering and joie de vivre, and we’re not always perfect at putting on a happy face. That’s okay. We’re learning and growing. Pollyanna Patty or Peter, not so much. Do you have an example of toxic positivity to share?