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Toxic Positivity

Updated: Feb 8, 2022

Too much of anything is a bad thing, even positivity.

In coaching and spiritual circles, there's often a big focus on gratitude and positive thinking. We say, "if you get your head right, everything else will follow" —or something along that line. But this can be a really damaging stance to take with anyone struggling with concrete issues.

I've been hearing a lot about toxic positivity recently, and I wanted to add my two-cents to the discussion. There's a lot of this especially within the health/fitness industry (you could be happy if you just ate right/ lost weight), the spiritual communities (positive mindset and intention will manifest your best life), and in life coaching (a gratitude practice can help refocus your thoughts, leading to lasting happiness). And frankly, a main reason these can be so harmful is there's a kernel of truth to each statement. But without context or thought for what a person might be going through we are effectively throwing the baby out with the bathwater; we're missing the mark, spewing 'advice' into the void, and causing harm.

To be perfectly transparent, I decided to write on this topic because of this article. The author Jodi Ettenberg discusses her chronic illness and living with daily pain after a medical procedure gone wrong. I recommend reading it if you've got the time.

A few years ago there was a saying going around: It's okay to not be okay. And the sentiment behind this phrase feels even more significant today, during a global pandemic and the resulting political climate. I think whether we know it or not, it's nice to hear that it's okay to not be okay.

There was a bit of a backlash to this phrase when people started to say: It's okay to be okay. And while I think that in some contexts this might be helpful to hear, like if you thought your 'brand' was depression but you're doing better, if you feel the only way to connect with people is to commiserate, or if you worry about spreading toxic positivity by sharing your joys. But it mostly misses the mark —much like 'all lives matter' does. By and large, being okay, happy, or exuberant is seen as acceptable, while depression, illness, and grief are pushed to the fringes of social media. Our society, especially today with the advent of influencers, really upholds the idea that youth, luxury, (specific types of) beauty, and happiness are all ideals we should strive for. We're told exactly what happiness should look like, and told that we too should have "all this" and that it's easy.

To be fair, I've seen way more posts about feeling lonely, bored, sad, depressed since 2020 and I think it's because we are sharing a collective depressive experience. In the aforementioned article, Jodi shares that her friends and followers expressed a deeper understanding of her suffering as they experienced prolonged bouts of isolation. It seems to me that people like Jodi can shine a light on how to get through difficult times, and hearing that it's not always about perseverance, gratitude, and staying positive is deeply important. We all need permission to wallow —for, in these moments, we can gain greater clarity on our abilities and limits and course correct as needed.

I've mentioned to my clients, time and time again, that when I feel my depression flare up I've learned to lean into it. I take one day and indulge in everything my depression wants of me: I stay in pyjamas, I don't shower, I only eat carbs and dairy, I watch tv all day, I don't talk to anyone, I'll nap and go to bed early (or stay up ridiculously late) etc. But I promise myself that tomorrow morning I will wake up, drink a glass of water, make my bed, and have a shower. I will do my hair and put on a cute outfit. I'll go for a long walk (or two). These are things that I know will help me fight back after gaining energy by not fighting the day before. Between gathering my energy and promising to fight tomorrow, I have managed to stay ahead of my depression for while now. I've not had a depressive episode last more than a couple weeks in the past 3-4 years (previously they would last several months). This has been huge for me, and I encourage my clients to try it for themselves. It's my One Day rule. Yes, the next day is a struggle, but I do it and it sets me up to keep fighting on the third day and so forth. How often can you enact the One Day rule? As often as you need! The only caveat being the next day you fight (so never two days in a row).

So, I suppose my point is to be discerning in your social media content. Check in with yourself when you scroll through social media. How do you feel? Does watching that fitness instructor, yogi, nutritionist, coach, guru, or influencer make you feel validated, happy, and motivated? Or do you feel ashamed, insulted, upset, and defeated? Maybe it's time to curate a better feed/ FYP. And remember, there's no such thing as a universal definition for living your life right. Only you know what's best for you, and when the best time to reach higher might be.

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