I want you to pretend you’re taking a drive with a friend. We’ll call this friend Sam.
The two of you are chatting as you cruise down the road, when all of the sudden another car runs a red light, t-boning the car on Sam’s side. Sam is unconscious and bloody, and rushed to the ER.
You are shocked, but somehow manage to walk away with nothing more than a sore back. Sam spends the next few weeks clinging to life, suffering one complication after another. As time passes, you realize that your back is starting to feel worse, not better. You don’t tell anyone because the focus is on your friend. You don’t want to seem weak or take the attention away from Sam.
But then your pain gets so bad you can barely move, so you finally go back to the doctor. They take some X-rays, give you some meds, and schedule physical therapy. Meanwhile, Sam is finally showing signs of improvement.
Now imagine if, when you went to that doctor, that (s)he told you not to complain because Sam was in much worse shape. Imagine if (s)he refused to treat your pain because (s)he had patients with worse injuries. This is an example of toxic positivity.
When I first heard the term, I have to admit that I was skeptical. I think that the word “toxic” is overused to a certain degree. But then I realized that toxic positvity (bland, unhelpful generalizations) is one of the reasons I struggle with anxiety and depression. And I also think it’s a huge factor when it comes to mental health issues not being taken seriously.
Have you ever been worried or stressed out over a situation, only to have nearly everyone you come in contact with tell you “it’ll work out,” or “it’ll be fine,” or “don’t worry so much!” Then there’s my personal favorites “calm down,” and “think positive!” These are the kind of phrases I heard my entire life anytime I was having anxiety about something. And while I’m sure the person meant well, the fact of the matter is that none of these sayings are helpful. They don’t address the situation or your feelings about it. Most of the time, they just make you feel worse about having anxiety in the first place.
Think about it this way — if you were a seamstress or mechanic and a customer came to you with a ripped blouse or squealing brakes, would you respond with these bland generalizations? No. You’d address the problem and do your best to fix it. Though anxiety is not always a tangible, easy issue to address, there are ways to legitimately help someone who is drowning in worry instead of dismissing them with false positivity. In fact, when I first started blogging I wrote this post to help people understand how they can actually help someone in the midst of a panic attack and not be so obtuse. This ubiquitous ignorance towards mental illness is another huge contributing factor to toxic positivity.
We live in a world where we’re always being told to “toughen up” and “suck it up.” We’re constantly being reminded about how great the modern age is and that we should appreciate all the luxuries and conveniences at our fingertips. Anytime someone seems down in the dumps about their job or living situation, we tell them to be grateful they have income and a roof over their heads — because plenty of people do not.
But here’s the thing — you can be grateful and still not be happy. You can be grateful and still be depressed.
One of the problems with the “things could always be worse” mindset is that while it’s true that someone’s situation is always worse than ours, there’s also always someone whose situation is way better too. So comparing woes and triumphs is completely irrelevant and not in any way helpful. In fact, when someone compares your mental health struggles to the struggles of a person who is terminally ill or homeless for example, it not only fails to make you feel better, but you end up feeling guilty on top of everything else. So this this tactic not only fails to address the problem, but it also minimizes and deflects the issue.
For some reason, our society is so obsessed with unhealthy comparison and competition that we ignore “small” problems until they morph into giant, uncontrollable, chronic issues. Social anxiety as a child is dismissed as mere shyness. Twenty years later, that person can’t function at college or in a job because their social anxiety was never addressed. Trauma or PTSD from assault or a car accident is never treated, so ten years after the event, that person can no longer date or drive. While I understand that not every single negative event in a person’s life needs to be treated as a traumatic, life-changing ordeal, I think we need to take the time to make sure we, as a society, are always checking in on the mental health of every single human being on a regular basis. We need to stop dismissing occasional bouts of anxiety and depression and get them treated before they spin out of control. And most importantly, we need to stop the stigma that comes along with mental health. If something is bothering you emotionally or mentally, it needs treated, regardless of how small or petty it may seem to other people — or even to you.
Think about it — if you sliced your finger open with a knife while preparing dinner, you wouldn’t skip getting stitches because someone else may be getting their leg amputated, would you? So why would you not address an unresolved mental health issue just because there may be people out there with more serious problems?
If toxic positivity has contributed to your anxiety or stunted your healing process, I hope you are finding ways to move on and heal. And if you — maybe unwittingly — are someone who continually spews toxic positivity, I hope this post helped you understand how important it is that we all be diligent when it comes to this epidemic.