Updated: Sep 24
I am sure that you have experienced toxic positivity before - in our culture today it is everywhere. It is trucker hats with big smiley faces on them and bumper stickers that say “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It is having a bad day and feeling like you have to smile and pretend like nothing is wrong. It is repeating positive sayings to yourself just to get through classes. It is when you did not eat all your lunch in d-hall and the kid across the table from you says, “What about the kids in Africa who wish they had that food?” Or when you do badly on a quiz and when complaining about it, someone says, “At least you don’t have cancer. At least you have a family and a house to go home to on the weekends. It could always be worse.” Everywhere you look, there is something telling you to be happy, or to be kind, or to be positive. Which are good things, to a certain extent. Positivity becomes toxic when it gets blown up into the idea that you should be cheerful, optimistic, and thankful all the time. If things are not going very well, then you should “look on the bright side.” You should “see the glass half full.” Toxic positivity tells people that a good attitude can make everything better.
But the thing is, these comments simply make people feel guilty and reinforce the toxic idea that you have to be okay all the time. It can make you feel like it would be the end of the world if you act visibly upset whenever things are tough. When you behave that way, and are constantly as positive as possible, whilst holding in all kinds of dark emotions and feelings, you are bound to explode. You are damaging yourself more than you are aware of. This culture of toxic positivity is very evident today, not just in our clothes or the phrases that we say, but also on social media. When you click on someone’s profile, it looks like they are the happiest person in the world. They are smiling in every photo, and they look like they have never had a difficult day in their entire life. The truth is, it is not that that person is that happy all the time, they just do not post their bad days for everyone to see. Everyone has dark days where it is hard to smile, and we as a culture have to stop insinuating that you have to hide that, and pretend like everything is okay.
Now, I am by no means saying that having a positive, optimistic attitude is a bad thing. I am as optimistic and happy-go-lucky as they come. I own many smiley-oriented clothing, my favorite color is yellow, and my social media is full of nothing but happy faces. I am not insinuating that being an optimist is a dreadful thing. For me, ever since an early age, I began to believe that my purpose was to make those around me happy, and I was determined to brighten the lives of those around me with total disregard to my own health and happiness. This went on for years, but I was hit with a realization about halfway through my senior year of high school. I was going through something painful in my personal life, and it put me in a very tough place emotionally. However, I refused to let anyone know that I was struggling. I just kept smiling, and forced myself to be the sunshine wherever I went. One particularly tough day, I was venting to a friend and said, “I can’t be sad. I am a happy person; I am supposed to be happy - it is my responsibility. I can’t let people down by being sad.” That is when I realized how far into this toxic positivity mindset I really was. I was so concerned about how others perceived me, and so obsessed with the idea that making others happy was my only purpose in life, that I stopped thinking of myself entirely. I had it in my head that what mattered most was having a good attitude, and I would be a failure if I were ever seen without a smile on my face. And it was so draining. That is when I learned how important it is to let it out and talk through it with others. You have to put your own health and happiness first. You also have to ignore when toxic positivity tells you that you are being selfish, and bringing everyone else down with your emotions. School is hard, and you are going to get in a fight with your roommate, or you are going to have a professor that you do not like, and you will be upset. But Berry encourages its students to handle all these stressors in a healthy manner.
You must get to know yourself, and find out what your happy medium is - no pun intended. There is a middle ground between being a dark pessimist who thinks that the world is crumbling around them, and being a smiley robot who is incapable of dealing with their feelings. You must look deep inside yourself and try to understand your mental health, and how having a constant positive outlook could be affecting you. No two people are the same, but there are some quick ways to recognize toxic positivity when you see it, and start calling people out on it. Some examples are experiencing guilt for being sad/angry, dismissing others’ negative feelings, hiding painful emotions behind a smile, ignoring problems/issues, and constantly reciting positive quotes during tough situations. If you feel like you can relate to any of this, do not be discouraged, and do not be too hard on yourself. It is okay to not be okay. Staying positive does not mean being happy all the time, or acting like everything is perfect - healthy positivity is knowing that even on hard days, better days are coming. For extra help, Berry’s Counseling Center is available virtually 24/7, or you can book an in-person session by calling 706.236.2259 or visiting the Ladd Center.