You should count your blessings: A note on toxic positivity

Posted 9/18/20

It’s time to get motivated, folks! We can kick this pandemic’s butt by busting out of bed, slapping on a smile and grabbing life by the horns.

OK, great. Now that I have your attention, …

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You should count your blessings: A note on toxic positivity

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Posted

It’s time to get motivated, folks! We can kick this pandemic’s butt by busting out of bed, slapping on a smile and grabbing life by the horns.

OK, great. Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about toxic positivity.

A few days ago, my coworker was sifting through our office library and came across a self-help memoir. She cautiously asked if it was one of those motivational texts that are overwhelmingly positive. I laughed dryly. Those books do seem to make up the majority of self-help sections.

How does genuine optimism differ from toxic positivity, you might ask? Genuine optimism involves acknowledging that it’s OK to feel multiple emotions, both positive and negative. Conversely, toxic positivity involves avoiding negative thoughts and ordering others to do the same.

I like to think of the difference this way: Imagine you have a friend who shares motivational quotes every day. Now, imagine that same friend saying you can be similarly happy if you just smile and think positive thoughts. This approach may work in Disneyland or Instagram, but in the real world, no one is happy all of the time. That is not normal.

You’ve probably heard the old adage, “I pulled myself up by the bootstraps,” and the implied “You can, too!” Bootstrapping is one familiar manifestation of toxic positivity. I’m glad that Joey Bob became a millionaire from nothing, but this is not the norm. Systemic barriers exist for some but not others, and it’s hard to pull yourself up if your bootstraps are broken.

Another familiar manifestation is attacking mental illness. A seemingly positive person may respond to your plea for empathy by saying, “Just get over it,” “Count your blessings” or “It could be worse.” These statements often have the opposite effect, making the recipient feel guilty and misunderstood.

If one were to apply toxic positivity to COVID-19, consider the influencers who proclaim we should spend this time becoming better and stronger human beings. To this, I say that it’s great if you discovered a new hobby or followed through on your passion project. It’s also great if you tried your best to get through each day. It doesn’t mean that you were lazy; it means that you realistically dealt with a pretty big shift in your life.

If someone is responding to you with toxic positivity, I recommend telling them that it’s OK for you to feel negative emotions, and what you need the most is someone to listen and support you. If the culprit lives inside your Facebook feed, it’s even easier. Just hit that sweet, sweet “Unfollow” button.

Rachel Horowitz resides in Chatham County and works in Pittsboro. She is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

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