I think we can all agree that life isn’t exactly a walk in the park. We all have our bad days, our dark times, our trials and tribulations, our disappointments and our failures. It’s just how things go.
So why is it, then, that every time you try to open up to someone about something negative happening in your life, all you ever get back is a flood of advice about how to stay positive and optimistic?
I mean, obviously I know the answer to this question. People are tying to help, first and foremost. They want you to feel better about your problems, whatever they are, even if you have no real reason to feel better in that moment. You have to at least have the hope that things will turn around, so you can stop yourself from wallowing in a pit of sadness, right? So people will say just about anything to inspire that hope, even in a situation that doesn’t warrant optimism.
Plus, it makes everyone uncomfortable to be around a sad person. Nobody knows what to say, or where to look, or what to do with their hands. It’s awkward. But you know what isn’t awkward? Encouraging positivity! It’s the easiest way to diffuse the gross energy that someone’s problems bring to the party, so obviously it’s the first tool in everyone’s arsenal.
But the thing about being told to look on the bright side is that it doesn’t always help. In fact, in some cases it’s downright insulting.
If your mother gets diagnosed with terminal cancer and you’re trying to make peace with the idea of losing her, it doesn’t help you at all to be told that she could make a miraculous recovery. It’s just a setback in your emotional processing. When you find out that you’re not going to be able to have the wedding you’ve been planning for the better part of a year because a virus closed down most of the country, it’s tone-deaf and irritating to have someone say, “Think of what a great story this will make!”
Not every bad thing that happens to you is a character-building experience. Sometimes it’s just a really, really bad thing. Not every problem that arises can be solved with Yankee ingenuity and elbow grease. Sometimes you’re completely screwed, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
And it should be okay to acknowledge that. But if you ever try, you’ll get told to how important it is to stay positive.
So let me say, on behalf of everyone on the other side of that particular piece of unsolicited encouragement: fuck your positivity, okay?
Sometimes everything sucks, and it’s okay to acknowledge that it sucks. We live in a culture that’s pretty much demonized not Making The Best Of Things at all times, and it’s not really doing anyone any favors.
I learned this week that there’s actually a term for what I’m talking about. It’s called toxic positivity, and it’s defined as “the concept that focusing on so-called positive emotions and rejecting anything that may trigger negative emotions is the right way to live life.” The toxicity comes from the fact that this approach essentially cuts out any outlet for your negative feelings.
Toxic positivity is the reason behind every platitude you’ve ever been fed while trying to vent to a friend about a legitimately shitty situation. It’s the reason that you feel like you can’t complain too much, or feel too bad about what you’re going through, or take too long to get over something awful that happened. You’re infected with this idea that staying positive is the only correct response to hardship.
And I want to say again, louder for the people in the back: fuck your positivity, seriously.
If you’re having a bad day, have a bad day. You don’t have to bend over backwards to make yourself focus on the fact that tomorrow will (read: might) be better. You don’t have to reject your feelings to uphold the current cultural standard of constant optimism. You’re allowed to feel bad.
I don’t have a profound conclusion for this piece, by the way. I just think it’s time we remember that we don’t live in a binary system where optimism is always right and pessimism is always wrong, you know?