On Toxic Positivity


Positively Present - Still Be Positive

 

As I've seen tremendous growth on Instagram over the past few years (which I'm certainly not complaining about!), I've also seen a rise in angry, unkind, and negative comments. This is to be expected, but when you've been doing this for a decade and are only now facing resistance, it's admittedly a bit of an odd feeling. It's new. And it's not great. 

Coupled with this strange, new feeling is the notion that, because my brand is all about being positive (a word that clearly has a variety of meanings for people, which we'll get into in a bit), I'm expected to behave in a certain way. Anything response I give that's not 100% cheerful, positive, uplifting, or agreeable is almost always followed by some version of, "well, that's not very positive of you!" 

The more I receive that kind of response, the more I realize people don't fully understand what I mean when I'm talking about positivity. And more and more, I'm receiving comments not only about my responses not being positive, but also about my content promoting what's known as "toxic positivity." 

Last week, I posted the image seen above on Instagram, and received a surprising number of comments related to toxic positivity, such as... 

"You seem like one of those people who tell people with actual depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other mental health issues that they should just think differently and it will go away."

"I'm really happy for you if a positive mindset brings you further in life, but don't erase the voice of those who don't follow your path."

"Positive thoughts backed by negative emotions is just negativity with a bow on it."

"Positivity can be toxic. If you are hoping for the best, you will be let down when the worst happens."

"Positivity doesn't work because it doesn't deal with the actual problem."

 

If you haven't heard of toxic positivity before, it's the idea that suggesting people be only positive, happy, and cheerful causes more harm than good. I agree with that. That's why you'll never see me post "good vibes only" or "if you want to be happy, be." Happiness isn't my goal in life — and it shouldn't be yours either. Happiness is great, but it's an emotion and, depending on your genetic makeup and your current situation, it might impossible to achieve. Positivity, on the other hand is a mindset, and one that can be chosen at almost any time. I've written about the differences between happiness and positivity before in "Happiness vs. Positivity: What's the Difference?" but I thought I'd take some time this week to address my understanding positivity in relation to the concept of toxic positivity. 

 

  • Toxic positivity is referring to happiness (it should really be called "toxic happiness"); positivity and happiness are very different. As discussed in detail in the article referenced above, there's a big difference between happiness and positivity. Happiness is an emotion. Positivity is a mindset. Chasing happiness can be problematic (and often leads to unhappiness because, great as happiness is, it's a temporary emotional state and does not last). Pursuing positivity is not problematic because it is a mindset, not an emotion, and it can typically be accessed no matter what your emotional state might be. You cannot always be happy. You can almost always be positive. 

  • Toxic positivity encourages ignoring negative emotions, but true positivity is not about avoiding, glossing over, or repressing emotions (positive or negative). A positive mindset is about accepting all emotions and doing whatever possible to work through them, understand them, and garner more self-awareness. I, personally, am often very unhappy, anxious, stressed, etc., but I do my best to take what I've learned over the past decade of working on being more optimistic to stay positive. The words "be positive!" don't mean avoid bad feelings. It means do what you can with what you have to make the best of the situation (or at least don't make it worse). 

  • Toxic positivity presents itself as something anyone can do at any time, but positivity is a mindset that doesn't often come easily and must be worked at for most people. Though it is certainly very difficult at times, choosing a positive perspective is possible most of the time for most people. Happiness, however, is not accessible just because you want it. If something horrible has happened to you, you can't just be happy. You can, more often than not, be positive. Certainly there are situations (such as extreme depressive states or in the midst of a panic attack) when optimism does not feel like an option (it can be so difficult at times or the brain might be wired in such a way that it feels impossible), but, more often than not, positivity is possible in a way that happiness might not be. However, it does take work and practice to know how to find optimistic outlooks in difficult times. For a lot of people (and especially for me!), a positive mindset doesn't come easily and it requires a lot of work to develop it.  

  • Toxic positivity embraces a fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude, but positivity isn't about putting on a fake smile or feigning cheer. Smiling, acting cheerful, etc. are all about the emotion of happiness. Pretending you are feeling good when you're miserable is not what positivity is about. It's important to remember that you can work on positivity; it's a skill. Happiness is an emotion. Yes, sometimes you can find ways to access it (like doing things or being around people who make you feel happier), but you can't force it. You can present outwardly that you're happy, but deep down, you can't make yourself happy if you're not. You can, with practice and the right mental toolkit, find ways to be optimistic. Which leads me to the last (and perhaps most important point)...

  • Toxic positivity aims for good vibes at all times; positivity won't necessarily make you happy. If you are going through a difficult time, if you are dealing with depression, if you have intense anxiety and it's been triggered, being positive isn't going to make you happy. The thing about positivity is: it doesn't necessarily make things better; it just doesn't make them worse. Positivity is not the same as happiness and it will not necessarily make you happy. Positivity isn't a cure for your emotional state; it's a mindset to adopt when life is difficult (and also when it's great). It will not change the world around you; it will only impact the way you see it. 

 

Toxic positivity should actually be called toxic happiness because the "just be happy!" attitude has nothing to do with maintaining an optimistic outlook. Positivity is about assessing the situation, understanding your feelings, looking to see if there's anything you can do to make the situation better, and, if there's not, doing what you can do make the most of whatever the situation is. It's not about pretending. And it's definitely not about happiness. 

When people come by this page or follow me on Instagram, they see the bright colors and the cute illustrations and assume that I'm a happy, cheerful, life-loving person without a care in the world. The truth is: I'm just a normal person. I'm someone who has had anxiety my entire life. I've been depressed (not just sad, but actually depressed). I've had some really bad things happen to me. For the past decade, I've been working on living more positively in the present, and I still have highs and lows just like everyone else. I'm happy sometimes, sure, but I certainly wouldn't classify that as one of my top emotional states. And, as long as I can keep being positive and doing my best to live in the present, I'm okay with that. 

 

A Note about Optimism on Instagram

Writing the article above got me thinking about how my content is perceived on Instagram, so here are a few thoughts on that...

I spend a lot of time creating my posts for Instagram. This isn't just me doodling for a bit and then posting. When creating the post referenced above, I thought very carefully about the words I chose to use. I specifically did not use "depressed," for example, because, while it is possible to be depressed and positive, it is often so challenging that it feels impossible. Likewise, I chose the word "can" because it means that it's an option. If you're sad, you can be positive, but you don't have to be. Also, the notion that you can be two things at once is the core message of that illustration. Our emotional states are often very complex, and we should allow ourselves the freedom to feel multiple things at the same time. 

When I'm creating something that's based entirely on my own ideas (not a quote someone else said), a great deal of time goes into really thinking about whether the words I'm writing are true. I'm incredibly analytical by nature, so when I've posted something (especially on Instagram), I've typically spent a lot of time reflecting on how it might be perceived. I do my best to look at it from a number of points of view and assess if it might be misconstrued or misunderstood. It might just look like cute little drawings to the average viewer, but a lot of thought goes into the words and images I choose.

That being said, I'm also creating things that I need to see, writing words that speak to what I'm struggling with in that moment. Though the Positively Present brand has grown over the years, is still me, Dani, trying my best to cope with my own negative, anxious, and melancholic mind. What is true for me might not be true for everyone else. I'm not a doctor, a therapist, or a guru. I'm not psychologist, authority figure, or philosopher. I'm a creator, sharing my experiences with the world.

So, whether it's something on my Instagram account or something you've seen elsewhere online, I'd urge you think critically and with an open mind before making judgments or remarks about the content. What you see might not speak to you, but it might be true and useful for someone else (and, in the example of this particular post, I know it resonated with a lot of people). When it comes to the content you see on my page or pages like mind, keep an open mind. Take what works for you, and understand that not everything will. And know that, at least in my case, I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I post. It might look pretty and light-hearted, but behind every post there's a lot of time spent thinking, analyzing, and carefully choosing words that I hope will help people (and me!) get better at living more positively in the present — regardless of whether or not we're currently happy. 

 

 

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The Creativity of Worry


Worry Creativity

 

While reading Karen Thompson Walker's The Dreamers, I came across the quote, "Worry is a kind of creativity," and it really made me think about worry in a different way. Sure, worrying can be a soul-crushing nightmare at times, but it is kind of cool that I can imagine so many things in my mind that have never (and likely will never) happen. 

I've always been a worrier (that's what we used to refer to it as back in the day before "anxiety" became a buzzword), and I've always considered it to be a mostly negative trait. Yes, worry has helped me be prepared in some cases, but, for the most part, worrying has wasted my time and drained my energy. Often, things I worry about don't happen or, if they do, I often find that, no matter how terrible the situation, the worrying had actually felt (or made it) worse. 

Most of us, particularly those with anxiety, know that worrying isn't usually helpful. It causes tons of unnecessary stress. It creates pain where there need not be any. It has negative effects on your body. Excessive worrying can cause anxiety attacks, lead to harmful, self-soothing habits, and have serious impacts on the body. Plus, worrying is often irrational, and knowing it's irrational and still being unable to quell it can be immensely frustrating and distressing. Point is: worrying isn't great. But Walker's quote made me think that maybe it isn't all bad. 

Over the years, I've found lots of ways to cope with worry (some healthy, some not-so-much), but even when I manage my worry to the best of my ability, it's there. I'd like to think one day I'll get to a worry-free state of living but, based on the past 35 years, I'm not holding my breath. So reading Walker's quote oddly made me feel a bit more at peace with my worry. It made me realize that, for decades, I've been making up stories in my head of all the things that could go wrong in a given situation. Was this useful? No. Has it harmed me in a variety of ways? Yes. But, still: it's pretty fascinating to think of all the situations I've imagined. And, useless as worry has often been to me, reading this quote made me think that maybe, just maybe, it actually has some sort of value. 

Now, I'm never going to argue that worrying is something we should all do more of because it makes us more creative. Worrying isn't some creative exercise I want to practice. But, if I'm going to worry (like it or not), why not focus on the oddly positive element of creativity tucked in the folds of anxiety? If I'm going to worry, why not stop resisting it so much (shout out to all the worriers worrying about worrying too much!) and just see what happens if I see it as a side effect of creativity?

I hate the "tortured artist" trope, but just because something is bad doesn't mean it's not true, and, based on personal experience (and quite a few studies, it seems), a lot of creative people are worriers. Whether they're creative because they worry or they worry because they're creative is hard to say, but worry seems to be a pretty common thread among a lot of creative people. Van Gogh once wrote, "I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me. Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head … at times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse." I mean, SAME. 

The reason so many creatives — including myself — are worriers has a lot to do with one thing: imagination. On one hand, we can imagine things to write or draw or paint or sing, but, on the flip side, we can also imagine all of the horrific things that could go wrong in any situation. I'm not saying that all creatives do this, but it seems like it's pretty common. Anxiety and creativity seem to be linked in a lot of people. Does it have to be this way? Maybe not. But that doesn't mean it isn't this way for a lot of people, and, from what I've learned, this link between the two has been around forever. As Laura Swinton wrote in this article on anxiety and creativity,


“Anxiety is a qualification of dreaming spirit,” wrote Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Noting that it’s a somewhat different emotion from plain, old, destructive ‘fear’, Kierkegaard thought of anxiety as the inevitable ‘dizziness’ that accompanied any creative leap. Anxiety, he wrote, is the result of freedom, a signifier of the ‘possibility of possibility’ – where fear is definite, anxiety is open-ended and ambiguous. It’s an idea that resonates – about a century later, T.S. Eliot described anxiety as ‘the handmaiden of creativity’. Whether anxiety is an aid to creativity or the price of entry, the two seem to be linked.

Within a creative imagination, anything can happen. Wonderful things. Horrific things. It's all there – all the possibilities. "Possibility," unlike worry, is generally seen as a positive term, but too much of anything (and the possibilities are endless in a creative mind) can be very bad. While I wish the link between possibility and worry didn't exist (I'd love to be worry-free!), I do appreciate the fact that there's a yin-yang element to the imagination. Yes, worry can be awful and oppressive and downright debilitating (especially when in a season of change, as I am right now), but the imagination – the very thing that also causes worry – can also be amazing and eye-opening and inspiring. 

What Walker's quote made realize is that worry, while terrible at times, is at least interesting. Would I trade my creativity for a worry-free life? Some days the answer would most certainly be yes. But when I take a step back and consider it more objectively, I don't know. There's just so much wonder and pure joy that comes from creativity that I just don't know if I could give it up, even if sometimes my anxiety is so dizzying that I wonder if I'll ever regain my balance.

What do you think? Do you find worry and creativity to be linked? Do you think they always have to go hand-in-hand? I've personally never experienced creativity without worry (nor have I ever met a creative person who wasn't a worrier), but maybe they don't have to be tied to one another? Part of me thinks embracing the connection between worry and creativity isn't great (is it glorifying worrying in some way?), but, as a worrier, I know that worrying isn't always a choice, so why not try to find the good in it? I'd love to know what you think! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! 

 

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New Year, Same You?: In Praise of Positive Choices

 

Positively Present - Celebrate Positive Choices

 

When something really great happens — you get accepted to the school of your choice, you publish a book, you land the great job, you find love, you make the team, you get the A, you choose a new career path, you give birth to a human person — celebrating is easy. People around you get excited for you and, even if you're filled with uncertainty ('cause change, however positive, can be scary!), you likely feel some sort of positive feelings about having worked hard to accomplish something.

But, unless you're some kind of amazing superstar, these big "wins" are probably not an everyday occurrence. In fact, they might happen only a few times in your lifetime! While I'm all for celebrating life's big, exciting moments, I think we could all benefit from turning a little celebratory attention to the little, everyday wins. This is especially true at the start of a new year when you're probably trying to: (a) keep up with positive progress made last year, (b) start making positive progress this year 'cause last year was a bust, (c) maintain some combination of the A and B, or (d) come to terms with the fact that it's a new year and you better find a way to get your act together before a new decade comes along! 

No matter how you feel about new years, there's always a bit of pressure associated with the start, with those twelve months of possibility stretching out before you. Resolutions or not, we all hope that this year will be better than last year (or, if last year was a great one, hope that this year will live up to it). We're all eyes ahead, focused on what we want to do or achieve in the weeks to come. Many of us are trying to better ourselves, to make choices that will be more aligned with who we want to be in the future. The beginning of each year offers such hope to be a better version of ourselves, and, while that hope can propel some of us into positive action, it can also make an awful lot of us feel like we're already failing at the year, even just a few days in. 

Personally, I had grand ideas for my post-holiday self. The end of the year is always my busiest, both personally and professionally, so I often find myself saying that "X will be different in the New Year" or "In January, I'm going to tackle Y." Not surprisingly, we're a week in and few things have changed dramatically from the time when the calendar read 2018. Change, at least for me, tends to happen slowly, and frequently it's only when I reflect back on things that I realize how much progress I've made. 

I frequently face a "new year, same me" frustration, growing angry at myself for not making all of the picture perfect choices I swore I would make once that calendar page had turned. But yesterday, after chastising myself for a not-so-great choice I made, I found myself mumbling, "I wonder how many good choices you make every single day and don't even think about."

And that little sentence stopped me in my tracks. How many positive choices do I make all the time without even thinking about them? How many changes have I made, over time, that I don't even think about praising myself for because they've become habits? While mulling over these questions, I recognized quite a few good choices I've made recently that a previous version of myself might not have made, like...

  • I didn't pick up my book and read for hours in the middle of a workday 
  • I didn't say the not-very-nice, judgmental thing that came to mind 
  • I didn't sleep in, neglecting the dog until much too late in the morning
  • I didn't order pizza when I had a perfectly good meal in the fridge
  • I didn't forget to take medicine and a rest when I got a headache
  • I didn't skip writing in my gratitude journal, which brings me joy
  • I didn't go down to the corner store and pick up a bottle of wine
  • I didn't put off vacuuming even though I really wanted to
  • I didn't send a call to voicemail and avoid the conversation
  • I didn't leave the bed unmade (which always makes me unsettled)
  • I didn't delete the email and avoid my editing tasks
  • I didn't conclude that I could skip this week's blog post
  • I didn't turn down an opportunity to help a friend in need
  • I didn't consume an entire bag of candy mindlessly
  • I didn't neglect my daily yoga practice, even while very tired
  • I didn't allow myself to smoke cigarettes like I used to 
  • I didn't leave dirty dishes stacked up in the kitchen sink
  • I didn't throw plastic in the trashcan instead of the recycling bin
  • I didn't lose my patience with the incessantly yapping dog
  • I didn't ignore the spreadsheets, despite the boredom they bring
  • I didn't buy that thing I really don't need but really wanted

These are just a few of the good choices I've made recently, most of them made without thinking twice about them. This list isn't meant to be, Woohoo! Look at me and all I've done right! It's meant to show you that, despite the plethora of not-great choices I've made so far this year, I've also made a lot of good choices too!

If you're like me and you're feeling a bit let down by the new year, unsure if you'll be able to live up to your 2018 self's version of who you'd be this year, I highly recommend writing a list of your own. Especially if you're working on New Year's resolutions (or if you've already broken them), writing down a list of positive choices you've made — even if they seem silly or obvious, like brushing your teeth or going to work — can really help you reframe the start of the year for you. 

A new year is a great time to make changes, make resolutions, set intentions, etc., but don't let it be a time when you beat yourself up for all you're not yet doing, forgetting about all the positive choices you've made (or are currently making). We're all on different paths. What's positive for me might not be for you; what feels like a big accomplish for me might be effortless for you. So take some time this week to think about what you've been doing — particularly the things you've done so many times that you don't even think about them anymore — and celebrate them. Because, when you think about it, all of those big wins in life — the moments we celebrate with fervor and festivity, confetti and congratulations — are really only possible because of all of the little wins we take for granted. 

 

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