Is there Such a Thing as Toxic Positivity?

To the untrained eye I could easily be mistaken as a high-energy person. I tend to be the Tigger to other peoples’ Eeyore, getting them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t.

Just this weekend a friend (in his thirties) invited me to a corn maze for his birthday. When we got there it became apparent that the site had been set up for children. There was an old fashioned fire engine swarming with toddlers like war boys in a post apocalyptic wasteland.

Most folks from my generation would park on the picnic benches, pound a few brews back, and go home. Rather than roll my eyes at the kid friendly festivities I took to them with gusto. Yes. I got my face painted like Spider-Man. Yes. I rolled around in corn. Yes. I met a camel. We raced down slides, bounced on trampolines, and fired miniature pumpkins out of cannons.

I like to have fun when I can. Odds are you wouldn’t know I have clinical depression unless I told you (and many don’t believe me when I tell them). I try not to wave my depression around like it ought to grant me special privileges. I don’t wear it on my sleeve like some kind of HANDLE WITH CARE label, and I don’t like to brag about it like its some hard-earned merit badge.

My depression is there. It is what it is. I function with it on stage and deal with it behind the scenes. A good actor will tell you that you really can’t fake a smile. If the zygomatic major in your cheek and the orbicularis oculi in your eye socket are out of alignment your smile won’t seem genuine. So when I’m smiling it’s not a false front. I’m happy with you in that moment, but moments later off stage I might find myself sulking. Sometimes my energy gets depleted. Sometimes my daydreams take a hard left into nightmare country, and sometimes I’m down for no reason. It happens.

My high-energy public persona is no lie. It’s just a concentrated burst of energy. It’s who I wish I could be all the time, but I’m so often socially sprinting.

The world wants people to be at their sunniest when they’re in public. Just look at how many job postings make sure to specify they’re looking for “High energy, positive, people persons.”

Sometimes that’s an easy request to satisfying and sometimes it’s exhausting. In either event I do my best to keep my darkness in check while I’m in public.

That having been said STOP TELLING ME HOW TO FEEL IN PRIVATE.

Motivational Memes Are Anything But

Stop filling my Facebook feed with the type of positive affirmations that blame the victim for not seizing every goddamn moment. Can’t I have a minute to breathe without the Carpe diem consortium telling me how I ought to be living?

According to a meme I keep seeing Lao Tzu once said, “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”

Well Lao Tzu’s tense-centric over simplification doesn’t factor basic neurobiology into the equation.

Then there’s this chestnut, “Drama does not just walk into your life. You either create it, invite it, or associate with people who bring it into your life.”

Did you catch all that? That serotonin imbalance you inherited from your parents: that’s your fault, as were the circumstance you were born into, obviously. Oh and that traumatizing event you’re still struggling to cope with: also totally your fault. Didn’t you know you could live drama free if only it occurred to you to flip your outlook switch?

(BTW if you have the above quote tattooed to your ribcage I assure you you’re the dramatic one in your friends’ lives.)

This last example beautifully sums up my problem with these motivational memes. “Happiness is a choice. You’re the only person who can make you happy. You’re as happy as you choose to be. – Rick Warren.”

Tell an amputee they that they should choose to have their limbs back. Tell a blind person that they ought to choose to see. Tell a person with severe clinical depression that they should choose to be happy always all the time.

Toxic Positivity (or When Positive Statements Make You Feel Bad)

As someone with depression I choose to be functioning and sometimes that decision alone takes all of my engines. If I end up feeling happy well that’s just gravy, but it takes a lot more effort than a mere attitude adjustment to keep me going.

Most embroidered quotes are just fluff, but the above examples aren’t harmless. They have a cumulative effect. They remind you that you’re malfunctioning. They make it seem like other people can feel better by simply looking in another direction.

These motivational memes represent a kind of toxic positivity. When you share them I question your capacity for empathy. They make me wonder if you’ve lived a sheltered life. I interpret them as your way of announcing your status as a fair weather friend.

Positive sentiment doesn’t bother me in and of itself. Of course I want to adjust my outlook, but these quotes are never the epiphany they present themselves to be. They’re ill equip to carry anyone through the decades of emotional heavy lifting needed to affect real change. At best they’re junk food for thought, at worst they’re perky people’s way of telling the rest of us we’d be prettier if we smiled more.

These quotes appeal to our optimistic selves. They’re sugary and sweet but they lack any of the intellectual nourishment we need to improve our situations. They trick us into thinking that a positive outlook is all we need to better our lives. Our outlook does matter, just not as much as the steps we regularly take to function.

Just as I think it’s bullshit to body shame someone who isn’t runway thin, I think it’s bullshit to outlook shame someone because they’re not smiling like Tony Robbins all the time.

Long Rant Made Short

Just because positive messaging gets the blessing of social media algorithms doesn’t mean you should share that shit all the damn time. Congratulations on having a naturally positive attitude. You’re one of the lucky ones. Just recognize that you can’t prescribe your genetics and your circumstances to everyone. Realize that your good outlook didn’t happen in a vacuum. Sure, you made choices that got you there, but you had your share of blessings too.

Wear a grin if that’s how you feel, but know that you sound like a catcalling construction worker if you tell someone else to smile for your benefit.

•••

Meet Noelle, a Hollywood transplant that’s been subsisting on instant ramen and false hope. She’s on the verge of moving back into her mother’s trailer when her agent convinces her to take a meeting at the Oralia Hotel. Enchanted by the art deco atmosphere Noelle signs a contract without reading the fine print.

Now she has one month to pen a novel sequestered in a fantasy suite where a hack writer claims he had an unholy encounter. With whom you ask? Well, he has many names: Louis Cypher, Bill Z. Bub, Kel Diablo. The Devil.

Noelle is skeptical, until she’s awoken by a shadow figure with a taste for souls.

Desperate to make it Noelle stays on, shifting the focus of her story to these encounters. Her investigations take her through the forth wall and back again until she’s blurred the line between reality and what’s written. Is there a Satanic conspiracy, is it a desperate author’s insanity, or something else entirely?

Pre-order my novel HE HAS MANY NAMES today!

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