When Positivity Becomes Toxic
Nothing makes me want to murder someone quite like being told to stay positive. Yeah, I’m a reflective kind of girl that finds things to learn in the worst of experiences, but that doesn’t mean I think the bad things are somehow a blessing. If you really want to watch me lose it, tell me things happen for a reason. I’m aware that these are coping tools and we all need them, but when we start erasing people’s problems in an effort to find a positive spin, the coping mechanism becomes destructive.
“How can we reframe that?” A year ago. A friend asked me the question when I was having a depressive spell, and it did give me pause: I’m believing a thing because of a disease. Fair point, how can I reframe that? I didn’t actually manage to reframe it in a positive way, but having the nudge got me to consider my thought loop.
This worked because it was an open question: it didn’t actually direct me to try and give it a positive spin. My friend just asked me to consider what else might come of the thoughts I was having, and so I did. Were they positive? No. They weren’t more constructive, either. But I spent time reframing rather than looping. There’s potential there to break the loop.
Knowing what I know about this particular friend, she did mean for me to reframe it in a positive way. She didn’t press me when I couldn’t, and that kept her positivity spinning from being toxic: she prompted the thinking but didn’t direct me. She didn’t try to spin it for me. She didn’t make my feelings invisible with some other interpretation. She didn’t get wrapped up in the outcome.
“Survival is a given,” came a recent comment on a self care page, and it made my blood boil. The objection was to a meme that discussed how self care was little things (true) and that it made survival possible (twee, but true enough for a meme). The commenter was trying to say that it could be said in a more positive way. Problem is, by spinning it in this way they are erasing the large group of people whose survival is not a given.
"I KNOW IT’S ONLY A MATTER OF TIME BEFORE SOMEONE CLOSE TO ME WILL NOT SURVIVE, AND I DREAD THAT DAY."
It’s important to recognise one’s own fortunes and remain mindful of those who are less privileged. For the poor, mentally ill, or persecuted, survival is not a given. I happen to tick all three of those boxes and my life intersects with many people who might well end up dead. It gets to a point where I deaden myself to it: every couple of months, a friend of a friend ends up nearly dead or in a prison somewhere facing torture. I know it’s only a matter of time before someone close to me will not survive, and I dread that day.
So when someone turns around and dismisses that reality because it’s not positive enough, their positivity is toxic. It erases me, my friends, my family and many of my closer associations. Staying positive is not worth it.
What I don’t understand is what we have to gain from erasing people or ignoring negative truths. To my mind, doing so is playing at life with half a deck. We all have negative, depressive moods. Some more severe than others but we all have them. Why does staying positive seem to involve killing those sides to us?
For me, the solution is in integration rather than ignoring. I get really bad (this article is late in because of a depressive day), and when I’m well enough I think about how I got out. Or how I didn’t get out. In this week’s case, I just got too tired to feel pain anymore. So I do try to learn.
To me, that is positivity that doesn’t become toxic: it’s recognising the truth of the matter, taking what I can from it and seeing what happens next. It’s not always being able to take things from it and allowing that to be OK. It’s giving space for the bad things.
Allowing the bad things to have the space they need to run their course is important. Crushing it out by reframing it —not allowing yourself to really explore the darker side of oneself — is dangerous. We escape negativity through processing, not spinning. By taking ownership rather than brushing it away.
"ONE STRATEGY THAT MAKES ME FOAM AT THE MOUTH IS THE IDEA THAT DEPRESSION IS DRIVEN BY A MINDSET. "
One strategy that makes me foam at the mouth is the idea that depression is driven by a mindset. Mindsets matter, but being in a depressive thought loop is not the fault of the depressed person. They’re ill. Telling a person fearful about something that they just need to change their mindset is alienating. It sends the person a message that the speaker doesn’t believe their pain is real, that they are to blame for their disease, and that we need to rethink our way out of our illness.
Fundamentally, if any of that were true then there wouldn’t be such a thing as mental illness. We would just think our way out and get on with life. Telling a mentally ill person that they can control their feelings is ableist; we can’t do it. Nobody wants to hurt so much they hope to die. Nobody wants to be so frightened about getting by the next gatekeeper that they harm themselves. People don’t power down in self hatred because they’re somehow just thinking wrong, but some people would have us believe that we are.
At the core of positive thinking is a great thing that I do believe in: we can take something good from our darker side, even if that thing is basic survival. We are not trying to get through. We are getting through. That sort of reframing is fantastically valuable.
The problem with positive thinking is the same problem we have with negative thinking: when allowed to take over, it denies us part of our humanity. It’s detrimental to evict a whole range of human emotion; the whole point is to learn from our full experience, good and bad. It can be used to erase people, same as negative thinking can erase those that care for us from our view. When those things happen, it’s every bit as toxic as the negative.