Since India has plunged into a devastating crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, good news seems very hard to come by. With every phone call and ping, anxiety sets in as each notification brings news of a loved one requiring urgent medication, oxygen or hospitalization. Urban Indians have taken to social media to coordinate requests for essentials and to save their family members as strangers repost their calls for help or find leads.
Amidst this, influencers on social media have been complaining about people spreading too much negativity by amplifying SOS calls. If only positivity could fix this crisis, things would have been so much easier for Indians scrambling to get resources to keep loved ones alive. At this moment of unprecedented loss, harping on the need for positive vibes goes on to show how a person’s privilege can make them completely oblivious to the pain of others.
Toxic positivity is the assumption that no matter how distressing or painful a situation maybe, people must always have a positive attitude. It essentially “works to silence negative emotions, demean grief, and make people feel under pressure to pretend to be happy even when they are struggling.” It tells you that every problem in life, no matter how big or small, can be fixed simply if you just maintain a positive outlook. Just look at our social media feeds — toxic positivity is now the norm with motivational speakers and influencers doling out a repository of quotes and quips in any given situation. While that post may work momentarily, suppressing negative emotions and putting up a facade of positivity affects both the mental and physical health of individuals. As it turns out, far from being the solution to every problem, positive vibes actually cause more harm than good. Try telling someone who has lost their mother to COVID-19 to just embrace positive vibes or another watching their partner’s oxygen levels drop. In the quest for survival, your positive vibes are tonedeaf and do scant.
With the rise in wellness influencers, even something as complicated as mental health has now been repackaged into hashtags and buzzwords that everybody seems to be an expert on. Toxic positivity, in many ways, is a byproduct of social media, the cult of personal development and the popularization of mental health discourse. This is best explained by how the body positivity movement, which began as a movement to celebrate bigger bodies, specifically those of Black and brown women, has now been co-opted by influencers and brands as a form of self-love where fat women are still getting left behind. Body positivity may be for everyone but the whole point of the movement was to celebrate those who had been deemed “unattractive and flawed,” and straight size individuals taking up that space defeats the whole purpose.
Ask a person with mental health challenges how often they hear misguided statements such as “just snap out of it,” or “change your mindset and it’ll all be fine.” Ah, if only smiling would take care of my depression, and putting on face masks would solve my problems. We’re using the language of self-care and recovery but in a context that priorities unadulterated happiness as the only viable solution to any problem. In practice, toxic positivity undermines the pain of others. It invalidates those experiences and emotions which aren’t always positive, telling people that what they’re feeling isn’t the right feeling.
Sometimes people need to accept reality and make space for people to put forth their deepest darkest emotions instead of desperately looking for silver linings. In fact, research proves that it is crucial to express one’s true emotions and feelings in order to maintain good physical and mental health. With the pandemic destabilizing all aspects of our lives, depression and loneliness have increased at alarming rates. Adopting a positive attitude that fails to see the death and devastation all around us might be the tempting alternative, but when you don’t accept your pain, it can turn to suffering. Psychologist Jenny Taitz, in an article published by The New York Times, recommends ‘Radical Acceptance,’ a behavioural therapy developed by the psychologist Marsha Linehan. Radical acceptance, Taitz says, is about recognizing one’s emotional or physical distress — no matter how big or small — and wholeheartedly practicing acceptance.
While Indians are struggling to breathe and streets are overflowing with the dead, some influencers in the country are asking us to stop “killing the vibe” by posting about SOS calls, hospital beds and oxygen. Preaching positivity at a time when the country is burning reeks of privilege and insensitivity. In this case, it also allows those in power to evade accountability if the people of this country decide to see the bright side instead of looking at reality straight in the eye.
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