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V is for Versus - Optimism vs. Toxic Positivity

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

toxic-positivity; toxic; optimism;

I was asked recently, “What’s the difference between optimism and Toxic Positivity?” and it got me thinking…

We use the term ‘Toxic Positivity’ a lot, but is it something specific?

Can a person be intentionally Toxically Positive, or is it a contextual thing?

I’m not sure I want to believe that people set out deliberately to upset other people – I mean, I know they exist, they’re all on Twitter(!) but, aside from the Professionally Offended, do regulation people set out to do anything other than try to help us if we’re feeling bad?

toxic-positivity; toxic; optimism;

I don’t think they do; I think, as with everything else, balance is key…

Not everything in life is perfect all the time, so being constantly told it is with no alternative being provided, quickly tips the balance away from encouraging optimism - “Maybe the sun will come out today” to enforced Toxic Positivity - “Even if it’s raining where you are, the sun is out somewhere else... #Gratitude

Positivity / optimism only becomes toxic if it’s overwhelming, or if it’s wilfully abusive (i.e. a denial of need / alternative: telling someone who is unwell that they’ll be fine when they clearly need medical attention, or telling a child who lives with abuse that ALL adults can be trusted, no matter what).

“Toxic Positivity” is more about the impact of a pervasive condition of social pressure on us individually and collectively, than it is about any specific or individual action. Toxic Positivity has always been around in various ways - politicians call it ‘spin’, but importantly, politicians always have a visible opposition.

toxic-positivity; toxic; optimism;

With the advent of social media, reality TV and such, it’s increasingly difficult to separate oneself from the grand social expectations created by huge movements for change like #MeToo, #BLM, and our old favourite, #BeKind...

The pressure to be perpetually positive about, and actively supportive of everything, all the time, is epic! What if I don’t want to be kind?! Well… be kind or be cancelled. The alternative is terrifying, and certainly toxic…

Cancel Culture can’t not be toxic – its intention is to bully and berate someone or something on a global scale; it's GLOBAL BULLYING, normalised and justified by a few people who believe their opinions to be fact.

Ironically, these same people will be the ones with #BeKind or #Ally or #BeYourAuthenticSelf as part of their bio. Anyone whose cognitive dissonance is so unknown to them can’t possibly be a good role-model for anyone, can they?

Anyway, I digress…

toxic-positivity; toxic; optimism;

Back to Toxic Positivity!

There’s potentially a gender bias to this too. There are so many women offering well-intentioned support and advice to other women about emotional wellness that it’d be hard NOT to get overwhelmed. (I’ll qualify this by saying it’s mostly women I see / hear doing this so it’s just my experience).

Consider the collective social pressure on women to support all women to challenge the patriarchy whilst building their own place at the table and feeding their children a home-grown vegan diet after child-led weaning from on-demand breast-feeding and gentle co-sleeping, alongside studying for a PhD. They must remember to drink enough water to keep their skin clear, do daily meditation, affirmations, a gratitude journal and some yoga for their mental and physical health; straighten another queen’s crown, advocate for someone less fortunate than you, and don’t forget to #BeKind...

Men aren’t setting and holding women to these unachievable standards, other women are! But it’s not about each of those individual suggestions, it’s about the pressure-full impact of their collective incessance.

toxic-positivity; toxic; optimism;

Who’s susceptible to Toxic Positivity?

Anyone who has lived with abuse or suffered with dark thoughts will be far more susceptible to the negative impacts of Toxic Positivity than those who haven’t.

toxic-positivity; toxic; optimism;

Anyone who has experienced balanced relationships and can appreciate the importance of good AND bad experiences will be less susceptible - they’ll be more able to set and maintain their own healthy boundaries - to dip in and out, hopefully before it becomes overwhelming. Someone who is susceptible will get very easily overwhelmed, and to compare is human nature. Bad stuff is easier to believe - even as an internal monologue - especially if bad stuff is all you’ve really known.

You can see how big an impact social media will have had on this - especially for adolescents. It’s a fast track to self-esteem struggles!

toxic-positivity; toxic; optimism;

Toxic Positivity in society:

toxic-positivity; toxic; optimism;

It’ll be interesting to see how Gen Z working plays out... bean bags, flexible working and office dogs are all good, but they create an environment that ‘demands’ positivity and creativity - ‘we’ve created working utopia for you, so what do you have left to be negative about?’ And passive-aggressive competition... Never-ending expectations to compare oneself to one’s peers dressed up as ‘celebrating wins.’

Schools are worth mentioning too - Their insistence on telling children they can “Be whatever they want to be if they just work really hard” is a perfect breeding ground for the impact of Toxic Positivity… It’s a real kick in the teeth for kids who haven’t been allowed (therefore learned how) to fail when they hit the real world and discover, instantly, the ‘can’t get a job without experience; can’t get experience without a job’ problem.

toxic-positivity; toxic; optimism;

Top Tips:

  1. Balance your circle. In real life and online. Don’t surround yourself only with people who tell you their lives are perpetually perfect. They’re not.

  2. Remember that most individuals aren’t toxic in their positivity, they’re genuinely trying to help or make you feel better. It’s when you’re hearing / seeing it all the time with no alternative views that the impact can become toxic.

  3. Check through your SM feeds. Are the posts all saying the same thing? Actively add some different views to your feed for balance.

  4. Have a friend who WILL tell you when your bum looks big in something and don’t cancel them when they do!

  5. Work out your own boundaries and stick to them. We can’t all be positive and supportive of everything, even if we want to! It’s ok to have an opinion that isn’t entirely positive. It’s ok to not agree with stuff. It’s ok to be selective about what you engage with, and its ok to expect to have your opinion respected!

toxic-positivity; toxic; optimism;

If you need some advice about Toxic Positivity get in touch with us at JLTS:

Image Credits

From Pixabay:


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