Commentary: Battling toxic positivity

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My mum saw me have a panic attack for the first time last winter.

I remember sitting in the living room, arms curled around my legs as I sat in a tight ball. I was dizzy from hyperventilating and couldn’t see through the tears. 

Mum sat on the couch across from me and watched. 

After a minute, she said, “Just calm down and think happier thoughts.” 

I know she didn’t know what to do. I know she meant well. I know she was trying to help. 

But I can’t count how many times people have shared advice like, “Just be positive,” “Good vibes only,” or “Happiness is your birthright.” 

Spoiler alert: It never helped. 

I’ve noticed a trend among friends and family in the past couple years. There’s this idea going around that we need to be happy all the time, but it’s a toxic spiral I’ve seen too many people get lost in.

I get it – it’s easy to fall down that rabbit hole. It’s easy to think you need to be happy otherwise you’re not living properly. It’s easy to believe you’re somehow empty, or lesser, if you’re not filled with happiness. 

But I think that’s wrong and it’s made us into bad listeners. 

When you think you shouldn’t feel anything other than gratitude and happiness, it creates this space where other emotions aren’t accepted.

As painful as anxiety, grief, stress and sadness are, they’re essential in life.

I don’t avoid feeling any of these negative emotions. Instead, I open my door and invite them in for tea.

I sit down with these emotions, learn what they’re teaching me and process it. Then, when I’m ready, I let them leave to make way for my new guests: contentment and calmness. 

When I’m listening to others, I do the same thing.

I invite my friend in, hear what they have to say and validate their feelings. I don’t tell them, “You should think happier thoughts.”

Instead, I say, “Thank you for telling me. How are you coping?”

Often, people don’t want you to fix their problems or offer inspirational advice. They want to be heard and validated. 

So how do we fight this toxic positivity?

We listen. We create space for these unwanted guests. We lean into the awkwardness to empathize with our friends. 

I once read that the antidote to negativity isn’t positivity, it’s warmth.

It’s listening when someone talk to you, validating their feelings and letting them know you’re there for them.

I know if my mum had listened that day, and offered a warm hug instead of toxic thoughts, then she’d be one step closer to understanding and helping me.