Depression

Toxic Positivity: A Feedback Loop of Delusional Thinking

Positive vibes only! I’m positive that many of you have heard that phrase time and time again. Whether it’s a post from a ditsy person you follow or from a friend and/or coworker that is cleaning house on the dim vibes their social circle is providing in excess, there’s no shortage of this mentality nowadays. There’s nothing discernable with excluding things and at times people from your life that drain you more than inspire you but there’s always a logical extreme that a new perspective can invite. Inside these artificial injections of good feelings into varying difficulties in life lies a dark side to the dosage that proves just as harmful as a purely pessimistic point of view.

Toxic positivity is that extreme in which any perceived negative experience is rendered mute when one simply brushes said event aside with a positive note. Indeed there is nothing wrong with trying to toughen one’s hide when school or work or romance isn’t playing fair by remaining bright in dark moments but people should proceed with caution. The problem arises with the excess of this method, treating things like sadness, anger, or even criticism with the same vigor as a household pest. Emotions are infinitely more complex than that. Despite mental protests to feelings of sadness, the emotion felt shouldn’t be suppressed with a faux smile but rather it should be simply felt and hopefully dealt with. It won’t be easy especially during the trial but as the age-old adage of the only way out is through ultimately etches the proper mode of operation.

Image via The Aggie

Negative feelings aren’t necessarily blights to be excised like an infection it’s a natural part of being a healthy person in an ever-challenging world. It sets a terrible precedent when you ask troubled young individuals to refuse their emotions with thoughts like “You’re doing great” and “Think happy thoughts”. In reality, it mostly leads to insidious feelings of guilt over being angry or sad in the first place. The feedback loop occurs when this guilt born of dismissiveness leaves no room for psychological growth because the negativity wasn’t dealt with nor was it properly felt, it was crudely jammed under the floorboards of the mind. When the next tear-worthy event happens the same few sayings are used again starting the process anew. If it’s not put in check with a fair amount of honesty then the nightmarish wheel turns unending eventually leading the individuals into a delusional point of view about negativity whether constructive or otherwise.

As a sufferer of depression myself, I’m well aware of the damaging effects of dishonest thoughts on both edges of the spectrum. Overtly negative thought cycles were the norm when my case was at its worst and it took what seems like forever to fish myself out of that hole. The stepping stones weren’t built from the same material each level up, it was consistently inconsistent. I didn’t climb from thoughts of radical positivity nor did I purely run off the noxious fumes of self-hate. I appreciated both sides and added a dash of objectivity until months passed and I realized I was in a better place than before.

Soon I’d come across social media posts pushing for this toxic positivity point of view to followers for years with it seemingly peaking on the biggest platform of the medium Tik Tok. In between the short clips of paunchy women cutting jigs to random pop music are videos of young men and women pushing for everyone to always feel wonderful. I don’t wish to siphon the message of its goodness as I know these can be healthy reminders to take life a little less seriously when things get tough but there should be a cap. Sweet thoughts like these should be taken in moderation like candy lest viewers risk a life ache so to speak. It’s a classic case of impact versus intention because these content creators are usually sufferers themselves the last thing they’d want is for people’s cases to worsen from their message. Thankfully there is a better way to deal out positivity without it morphing into an ouroboros of a self-hating head eating its own patronizing tail.

Image via Chicago Public Library

Toxic positivity gained a decent amount of traction in the literary world as well. Recently the phenomenon amassed a handful of authors to write books against the belief system albeit in a more righteous fashion. Books like Briah Fleming’s Be Positive: Fuck Toxic Positivity and T.R. Tucker’s Toxic Positivity are just a few of many short books that affirm a positive attitude toward life while acknowledging negativity in a healthy way to ward off the toxicity of either end of the thought spectrum. Tucker’s entry even warns of the ever-increasing verbiage of motivational speakers as a particularly unrecognized sore spot since the coming of the digital age. These authors seek a more honest approach to alleviate the anxious and depressed while making sure the feelings being dealt with are at the very least constructive to someday inspire hope in the troubled hearts of so many out there, not purely striving off of it. So in the spirit of Mental Health Awareness Month, I’d also like to throw in a positive yet diligent thought to my fellow depressives out there dealing with some less than favorable times:

Hope is life’s sweetest spice. It enhances the flavor of any recipe it touches but it is not the whole recipe. It’s not the meat nor the vegetables for spices can only mold the working parts together into true satisfaction but the spice can be deceiving. It can fool the most skilled of tounges into believing it’s the only delicious component. It convinces them so much so that the deceived fill their mouths with spice until it foams and forces them to crudely cough the specks of what was once pure and beautiful toward the starving few. The meat and the broth and the vegetables aren’t beautiful like the spice in fact some are truly grueling but they’re all key in the recipe. Each part working to culminate to true satisfaction only to be brought together with only a pinch of vigor. As such life needs hope but it is not the whole recipe. Use your spices wisely my friends.

TBT Best Seller Edition: ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’

One week into October (AKA Halloween is just around the corner) and two days away from World Mental Health Day, this week's TBT is perfect leading up to both events. In about ten pages, efficiently transition out of summer and into the spooky season.

Read more

The Bell Jar’s Influence: Anniversary Edition

The first line in The Bell Jar is a hook: “It was a… sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” The person speaking is Esther Greenwood, a smart, straight-A, dark-humored and, as the story goes on, depressed protagonist.

The book was published in London on January 14th, 1963 under a pseudonym Victoria Lucas, one month before the actual author, Sylvia Plath, committed suicide. People had to wait almost a decade for its publication in The United States. It is the only novel Plath ever wrote.

image via vintag.es

The story itself is a coming of age tale about a college girl who is figuring out what she wants and who she wants to be. She wins a contest to write for a “girl’s” magazine called Ladies’ Day in New York. She takes the opportunity and moves to New York for the summer along with a group of other young women, and they all live in a hotel/dormitory called the Amazon. This is where the book begins. The experience is less than Esther expected it to be. Her editors give her uninspiring pep talks, and her friends lead her into dangerous situations where she is almost, at one point, raped. She feels lonely most of the time. Upon getting stuck in a room where one of her friends, Doreen, is getting close with Lenny Shepherd, a man they met by happenstance one night on the town, Esther says:

“There’s something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room. It’s like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction – every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it’s really you getting smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from all those lights and that excitement at about a million miles an hour.”

It is with similes like this one where we get a deep look into Esther’s intelligence and ability to discern the truth about what it means to be young and still forging your identity.

 

A lot of the novel is about forging identity, but Esther’s identity is so tied up with her depression that she has trouble separating the one from the other. After New York, she heads back home to Boston and spirals downward until she finds a crawlspace to hide in, and tries to commit suicide. This lands her in a sanitarium. She is eventually sent to a private hospital in the countryside paid for by the woman who sponsored her scholarship, Philomena Guinea. It is there where Esther is really attended to for her illness. She is given insulin, analysis, freedom to go into town with improvement in mood, and is treated with electric shock therapy; all of it leads her back to wellness. How do we know she’s well? She says, just before her dismissal, “There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice – patched, retreaded and approved for the road.”

This novel also gave Sylvia Plath a way to confront sexism and convention. Throughout the pages, Esther mentions how many times her mother has at one point told her to learn shorthand. “The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.” Esther doesn’t know how to cook, either. She doesn’t know how to dance. She can’t sing a note. “The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes…” In other words, Esther succeeds at competing with men.

image via sylviaplathinfo.blogspot.com

Plath’s writing style can be interpreted as dark, but also as darkly comic, elegiac, honest, and nostalgic. “When I was nineteen, pureness was the great issue.” This is both a joke and an admittance. After Esther finds out Buddy Willard, her boyfriend, has already had sex, she is filled with resentment over the hypocrisy he embodies but also feels a competitive edge. She rejects his proposal. He is a fraud in her eyes now, and it brings her a step closer to knowing something about herself: she cannot succumb to promises of chastity until marriage. Esther ends up losing her virginity to some guy named Irwin she meets on the steps of the Harvard Library. It leads to a slight hemorrhaging mishap that lands her in the Emergency room; what she loses in blood she gains in experience and independence. She is even fitted for a diaphragm with the encouragement of her female doctor. “I was my own woman.”

 

Esther also ponders a life of wifely duties with children and husband as her primary purpose in life and she grows deeply afraid. “I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard’s kitchen mat.”  While this characterization of family life may be exaggerated, Plath is pointing out the inherent gender inequality and unfair expectations society has for women.

Image via Lagan Online

The bell jar itself symbolizes Esther’s mental illness in all its stifling, alienating inescapability: ”…wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” The bell jar warps reality, but there isn’t much difference, at times, between the distortion and the truth, as Esther discovers. On the day she is due to leave the hospital, Belsize, where she lived during her hospital stay, she wonders “what was there about us, in Belsize, so different from the girls playing bridge and gossiping and studying in the college to which I would return? Those girls, too, sat under bell jars of a sort.”n

If you’re curious as to how closely this novel relates back to Sylvia Plath, she did indeed have a guest editorship at a magazine called Mademoiselle. Philomena Guinea is based on a real woman, her literary patron named Olivia Higgins Prout, and Plath did try to commit suicide, and was sent to a hospital as a result. She even had Electroconvulsive Therapy just like Esther.

 

In 1979, there was a film adaptation starring Marilyn Hassett and Julie Harris. It did not do well with audiences or critics. There is a Showtime tv series (originally slated to be a film) starring Dakota Fanning based on the book supposedly in the works.

image via storenvy

The response to the book was positive, but Sylvia’s mother didn’t want it to be published in the United States because of the comparisons people made between Esther’s family and her own. It finally made it here in 1971, and fans did hyper-focus on the autobiographical similarities, though the NY Times gave it a positive review. The New Yorker’s review was mixed. In the end, it became one of the most influential novels of the 20th century.

Featured image via Deskgram


Bookstr is community supported. If you enjoy Bookstr’s articles, quizzes, graphics and videos, please join our Patreon to support our writers and creators or donate to our Paypal and help Bookstr to keep supporting the book loving community.
Become a Patron!