On Toxic Positivity

Artwork: Naajiyah Saarah-Sultana (Instagram: @naaajagram) 

You may have looked at the title of this article to find that the term I have used in it sounds somewhat oxymoronic: how could positivity – which, by definition, is inherently good – ever be toxic? Well, it comes back to the recurring message of this blog about good things only being good in moderation: even water, so integral to our existence, becomes toxic when over-consumed.

There is, undoubtedly, a point where negativity – cynicism, pessimism, a monomaniacal commitment to only seeing the bad in situations and people – becomes irritating and detrimental to the wellbeing of others. “Good vibes only,” some people declare in their Instagram bios, in retaliation to this seemingly trendy bitterness. And “No negative energy” forms the self-declared motto of many people’s lives nowadays – or, rather, what they choose to show of them. This resolve towards positivity at the expense of negative intrusions can be useful, of course: we do, at least to some extent, attract and manifest what we expect. However, if we unrealistically attempt to close ourselves off to all forms of negativity, we run the risk of concealing and suppressing our (rather normal, healthy) negative emotions.

Consequently, in doing so, we risk becoming bad friends. Good friendships depend on a mutual exchange of authentic expression, and if we fictitiously portray ourselves as being absolutely indifferent and immune to negativity, our friends may not feel comfortable enough to discuss with us their (once again, rather normal, healthy) negative emotions. Moreover, it is unbelievably selfish, I think, to (whether directly or indirectly) abandon our friends at their lowest points merely in order to fulfil our own unrealistic expectations of being surrounded by exclusively ‘positive chakras’.

There is no need to apologise for not smiling all of the time. Neutrality and negativity are essential components in any healthy emotional mind-set, and being real about such emotions is better than being dismissive and avoidant. Furthermore, oftentimes, responding to others’ occasional expressions of dispiritedness with well-meaning exclamations of “You’ll get over it!” or “Just be happy!” or “Good vibes only!” is comparable to endeavouring to treat deep and grotesque wounds with… little Peppa Pig plasters. When left unsubstantiated, these plasters of unhelpful advice are decorative and futile.

Granted, the toxically positive tend to have good intentions: they simply do not want to feel or indulge in any negative emotions whatsoever, nor do they want to accidentally absorb anybody else’s ‘toxicity’. Negativity in its extreme forms is damaging, but it is by no means an intrinsically toxic thing to experience. We all feel such emotions, and we do so for a reason; our brains are alerted to the fact that something is wrong, and, thus, that something needs to be done about it. And this is where friends return to the equation. Of course, we cannot expect too much from our friends emotionally; they do have their own lives and issues to tend to. But it is not immoderate nor audacious to expect our friends to help us combat our negative thoughts – at least some of them, some of the time. Unfortunately, some (notably, usually the ones who have not yet learnt to embrace and deal with their negative emotions in a healthy manner) turn away at the first signs of negativity in others. They are trying to protect ‘their vibe’ (whilst simultaneously concealing their own neglected emotional abysses) and come to perceive the victim as a villain attempting to infiltrate their own sphere of positive energy. Yes, emotional vampires certainly do exist and are unpleasant to constantly be around, but it is not healthy at all to expect ourselves nor others to be fully okay all of the time.

And, truth be told, the excessively, toxically ‘positive’ are just as irritating and unhelpful as their toxically negative counterparts.

Sadia Ahmed, 2019