pandemic wellness

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.

Post-Pandemic Life and the Lost Art of Connecting

For most of us, the last 12 months have been rife with isolation and filled with loneliness. We’ve leaned into technology to stay in touch, but those platforms don’t replace the joy and thrill of dinners with friends, celebrations with extended families or even the occasional water cooler chats with colleagues. Now, with vaccinations underway and the COVID rates dipping, it’s time to start to think what to do as we emerge from our socially distanced abodes. 

Some good news — whether you’re a born connector or someone who struggles to widen your circle, the pandemic has, in a sense, leveled the playing field — forcing all of us to start from scratch when rebuilding the real life experiences, we’ve been lacking. Here are six quick ways to get started:

  • Be Intentional. Spend some time now reflecting and thinking about what it is you want to accomplish when you emerge. Do some old-fashioned naval-gazing and determine what and who matters to you. What values do you want to focus on? What are the special assets you have to offer those you know and those you will meet? Being clear about your goals will help you chart your course for connecting. 
  • Forget FOMO and Create JOMO (the joy of meeting others). As we return to a sense of normalcy, consider becoming a convener (online and/or in real-life). Start small if the idea intimidates you. Invite five friends or colleagues to a small gathering and ask each to invite one additional person. This group approach will put you in contact with friends of friends and increases the chance you’ll cross paths with others who share a mutual interest. 
  • Ask Questions. To truly build connection, learn the art of the ask. Have five or six questions ready that will illicit meaningful responses. For example, instead of standard and stale conversation starters like inquiries about the weather, consider instead, “What are you looking forward to the most once the pandemic is over?” or “What part of social isolation is most challenging to you right now?” These questions invite a more thoughtful response and are far more likely to result in a meaningful conversation. 
  • Learn How to Listen. Most of us fail miserably at listening with several studies suggesting that 75% of the time most of us are distracted, preoccupied and forgetful.  But to be a great connector (again both online and in the real world), listening is the secret weapon. It’s critical to building meaningful and long-lasting ties to others. The next time you’re in that conversation asking good questions, be certain to focus on and retain the answers. Knowing what’s on someone’s mind, what they prefer, what they are excited about are the keys to offering an appropriate and supportive response. 
  • Follow Up. If you truly listen and go so far as take notes (a great way to actually remember), you have all the tools you need to artfully follow up. If your colleague mentioned that they were planning a trip to a city you or someone else in your circle has visited, send them an email with the names of several museums or restaurants you know and loved.  If a friend is looking for a nonprofit to support and you are familiar with one looking for their expertise, make that introduction.  It may feel uncomfortable at first but turn that idle thought into a concrete follow up action. 
  • Rinse and Repeat. Like most things in life, practice makes perfect in connecting and you have a lifetime to finesse your craft. After your colleague returns from their trip, check in and ask how it all went and if they visited the spots you recommended. Reach out to see how they’re doing, what’s going on in their lives personally and professionally. This can be a phone call, a text, a direct message on Twitter of Instagram or even a hand-written note. 

Knowing how to skillfully and artfully build a community is a skill that will serve not just in the wake of a pandemic and prolonged self-isolation, but also whenever you’re faced with a new environment, be it a move to a new city or a switch to a different industry. Approach it with confidence, and your efforts will be richly rewarded time and again. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

SUSAN MCPHERSON is a serial connector, seasoned communicator and founder and CEO of McPherson Strategies, a communications consultancy focused on the intersection of brands and social impact. She is the author of The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Relationships (March 23, 2020; McGraw-Hill). Susan has 25+ years of experience in marketing, public relations, and sustainability communications, speaking regularly at industry conferences, and contributing to the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Forbes. She has appeared on NPR, CNN, USA Today, The New Yorker, New York Magazine and the Los Angeles Times. Susan is a Vital Voices global corporate ambassador and has received numerous accolades for her voice on social media platforms from Fortune Magazine, Fast Company and Elle Magazine. She resides in Brooklyn.

ABOUT THE BOOK

The onslaught of technology and social media provides for a tightly woven “community” online, but isolation and loneliness remain high for people of all ages, especially in the midst of a global pandemic.  In her practical and much needed book, The Lost Art of Connecting, seasoned communicator and serial connector Susan McPherson explains how to go back to basics and forge lasting, effective, and meaningful connections—the human way. Her three-step method (Gather, Ask, Do) encourages people to be more intentional and authentic both when looking for new connections and retaining old ones—on Zoom or in real life.