“It could be worse!”
How many times have you heard a sentence like this? Especially during the trying pandemic times, it is so common to receive this kind of dismissive response when sharing details about your life.
“Oh, you are stuck working from home with your kids? Well, at least you have a job!”
Reactions like this are termed as toxic positivity, which is “imposing positive thinking as the only solution to problems, demanding that a person avoid negative thinking or expressing negative emotions.”It can come in many quiet but hurtful forms. From a dismissal or avoidance of discussing a problem at hand to comparing fortune (or lack thereof) to adopting the blanketed “good vibes only” mindset. All of which reject the reality and variety of human emotions.
Toxic positivity is so deeply ingrained in our everyday lives we might miss it if we blink too fast. Finding specific examples of it in the media actually took some time, which I think speaks volumes about how normalized this behavior is in society.
Firstly, let’s look at Naruto. An orphaned young boy, Naruto grows up in a village where everyone shuns and hates on him. Sasuke Uchiha, his teammate, is his parallel in many regards, as he did not have an easy life either. His whole family was massacred when he was around 7 years old by his older brother. The difference between the two characters is stark. While Sasuke is focused on his vengeance, and trains to become stronger and beat his brother, Naruto is apparently the positive example to look up to. However, Naruto does not face the villagers’ hate towards him for a long time. His eagerness to please others and be loved encourages him to conveniently “sweep under the rug” many of the ugliest feelings for most of the story.
Another example of toxic positivity in media is Vanya Hargreeves, from the acclaimed Netflix series The Umbrella Academy. As a child, she was kept apart from her siblings, and as they had their shared experiences, she was left alone with her robot mother. Throughout most of season 1, she passively accepts that she is at least somehow part of the family, even with no powers of her own. And even if she has no powers, she still is good at playing the violin. Most of the first season has Vanya avoiding a direct confrontation with her siblings, and pretend that everything is fine until she is exposed to some facts she could not sweep under the rug anymore.
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Sometimes people don’t want to look at the bright side! And the unfortunate integration of toxic positivity into everyday life and media means there is more harm than good being done. It ultimately negates the reality of human emotions, which exist in a wide, valid, and sometimes not-so-bright range. Studies have shown that this unhealthy mindset has the ability to make a person feel like their problems are invalid, or not being heard—causing them to bottle up, dismiss, or feel guilty for their emotions. In the face of positive bias, people were seen to be less likely to seek support if they feel that they aren’t being understood, or they are failing to overcome adversity.
In most real-life scenarios, the words of optimism are fueled with good intentions, but offered ignorantly. Compared to everyday life, it’s a projection on a screen can be even more detrimental to a person’s mental wellbeing. Viewers may feel that the toxic positive behavior is normal because of the ease and frequency with which it is delivered– therefore making it difficult to recognize. Not to mention the sheer wideness of the audience that media can reach, increasing the number of people that can fall into the positivity trap.
This dangerous mindset has the ability to affect anyone and everyone. Its rampant presence in all of society and media means that no one is shielded. It can affect younger people and teenagers more severely as they are developing their emotional intelligence and forming opinions at that vulnerable age. Similarly, it has the capacity to target people with emotional control struggles, such as those already suffering from preexisting mental health conditions, or people in generally vulnerable states such as recovering substance addicts.
The media we consume has a tendency to glorify or romanticize those dramatic break-up moments, or showcase a person overcoming adversity with great ease. Many of our favorite characters are those who can smile through the pain and never seem to have a bad day. But it’s human to feel something other than happiness– so remind yourself that It’s also okay to not be okay. Cut yourself some slack and space if you are feeling overwhelmed, upset, or bothered by any other emotion. Experiencing a challenging and wide range of emotions makes you human!
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