Social media would have us believe that if we haven’t learnt a new skill, done up our entire house, detoxed our body and our mind, perfected our cookie recipe, and toned our abs, then we’ve been doing lock down wrong. I recently learnt that this constant barrage of things you should be doing in lock down or, arguably worse, things I’ve learnt and have done in lock down has a name – toxic positivity.
I’ve been wanting to write about this phenomenon for a while now, it is something that has really affected me, for maybe years, and especially over the last few months. But every time I started to put down the words, I ended up getting into a spiral of self-doubt and I stopped. This is partly because I know I’m guilty of joining in with it all myself more than occasionally, sharing posts on my favourite views to see, my happy road trip memories, my outdoor gear reviews, even my One Hour Outside campaign – you know, do this and you’ll be happy like me type stuff. Ugh. It’s also because for all intents and purposes this is an outdoors focused blog which I want to be full of cool ideas of fun things to do based on my own experiences, not a place for psychological commentary and self-help suggestions.
I’ve dabbled. The way our brains work has been a fascination of mine for the longest time, I took an A Level in the topic, opted for psychology focused module choices in my Bachelor’s degree, and spend a lot of my time at work choosing (what I hope will be) the right words to communicate a given message well. You’ll find a few mind-matters posts here on Splodz Blogz; my “You can do anything. But not everything.” post is worth a read and a ponder over a cup of tea sometime, I stand by those words and they are indeed pertinent to this topic.
I want to write about toxic positivity because it bothers me. And because it’s a really strange topic. On the face of it, being positive online is hugely motivating and inspiring. It should be. But it can very easily tip over the edge. Maybe it’s because I’m particularly bad at separating what I should do and what I want to do, my inability to choose (also the topic of a very old post here) means I feel I should be doing it all and if I don’t then I am somehow unsuccessful at life. Or maybe it’s because part of me sees through the overly positive ways to happiness and I can’t help but see arrogance and one-upmanship. Let me explain.
My To Do List
When I sit back and look at all of the things on my to do list, and having recently started to use Microsoft To Do as a way to keep track of those to dos properly, I can’t help but feel like I’m failing. There are hundreds of things on there. And the rate at which I tick them off is, quite frankly, appalling. Work things, home things, blogging things, fun things, family things. I mean, it took me over eight weeks to paint my garden fence from start to finish, that’s an average of one fence panel a week, and that was after owning the fence paint for over a year…
Don’t even get me started on the things I’d like to be doing. So many ideas. Watching all the amazing free arts content online, taking another course on meteorology, trying to learn Spanish again, getting back into painting, making that wicker basket that has been sat in the corner of the spare room for the longest time that needs soaking two days before I plan to attempt it, writing all the blog posts on my list (37 of them at the moment, including this one), getting to grips with mindfulness, to name just a few that come to mind straight away. It all sounds great and wonderful but, in all honesty, most of the time, it feels completely impossible to attend to all of it. And so what do I do? None of it. I go for a walk instead, do my best to push all the dos and wants out of my mind, come home and eat all the food, and get stuck in a YouTube hole for the rest of the day.
All the while we’re bombarded with messages to do yet more. We should cook more, meditate more, read more. We should be planning our travels and adventures for when that’s allowed again, clearing out the entire house of all the clutter and rubbish (I did manage to finally buy a new mattress and take the old one to the tip), and sorting out our skincare, diet and exercise plans so we come out of lock down looking and feeling great. So. Much. To do.
None of these suggestions are bad ideas. The problem is they are all great ideas, every single one of them. The result of there being so many, is that the positive inspiration turns toxic, and we end up screwing our faces up and ignoring them all. Another cup of tea? I think so. It is simply too much.
What is Toxic Positivity?
Toxic positivity is when we, or other people, portray life as being always rainbows and roses, no matter what. It is always looking on the bright side, always portraying yourself as having it all put together, and telling the rest of the world that you know just what they need to do to be just like you. It isn’t about having coping mechanisms to deal with negative feelings, such as good mindfulness practice or counselling, but rather it’s about switching those emotions off completely and sticking on a permanent “look at me, I’m perfect” smile. It’s also not about those “ten things to see/do/practice” posts, although they can certainly exasperate the situation.
This way of viewing life is hugely damaging – to yourself, and especially to other people. Psychologists tell us that when you deny or avoid unpleasant emotions, you make them bigger. By not paying them any attention, they trap you and become a burden. Not processing the negative side of life becomes unsustainable and, eventually, leads to break down.
Ridiculous lock down to do lists are just one way that this manifests itself.
This last couple of weeks I have ticked off a few things, I don’t want it to sound like I’ve done nothing since we started lock down back in March. I mentioned the fence, well that is indeed done. I also got the summer tyres put back on the car (yes, in late May…), took delivery of the afore mentioned new mattress that we should have bought a year ago, defrosted and cleaned the freezer, and paid someone to come and give my motorbike a full valet. Yes, paid someone else to do it. What else? Worked full time, of course, at my dining room table, interacting with my colleagues through a screen. I’ve also made a pile of things to take to the charity shop when they open up again, walked the equivalent of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast hike from my own front door, and have become best friends with Disney+. This feels like a massive list of achievements on the face of it, that is until I open twitter or Instagram and instantly find people who have done way more, and have apparently also been completely wholesome and perfectly beautiful at the same time.
The Only Route to Happiness
We really do live in a time where it’s easy to spot people who seem to be able to do it all. These amazing men and women clearly have it all put together, are super successful – and happy. Of course, they also know where we are all going wrong and love to tell us what we should be doing instead of our failed attempts at life. We are met with self-help all day long, sometimes from these same people, who will offer us a plethora of suggestions on how we can be just as happy as they are. I’ve recently added to my woes by listening to a couple of books from the “self-help” genre which seemed interesting and useful at the time but on reflection just made it all worse.
The problem, of course, isn’t that some people have their lives sorted, or that they share their successes on social media, that’s so good for them. The problem is also not about whether we use this time to better ourselves by learning new things, de-cluttering our houses, or losing a few pounds. Rather, it is that toxic positivity can make the rest of us feel like our lives are somehow not as rich because we haven’t done all those things. Comparison between yourself and others is the evil here.
It is so easy to be drawn in to “we must do exactly what they are doing because that is the only way to be happy”. It is okay to be fine with your body, home, car, hobbies and diet, as they are right now. The time might not be right for you to change your eating habits, watch less television, or even start your side hustle and make millions. Yes, even in lock down. What is important is that we all listen to our own mind, body and soul instead of following the trends and getting taken in by toxic positivity.
My to do list is here to stay. I do love a list. I just need to get better at being satisfied with the rate at which I tick things off.
Equally, reading lovely happy and wanderlust filled posts about the best views to see, the places to visit in my (non-existent) campervan, and all those totally-proven-never-fail-you productivity habits to have, is also okay.
But I need to remember they are only ideas and I don’t need to automatically add them all to that afore mentioned list. Remember: Anything, not everything.
And finally, and definitely most importantly, I can and should be content when I decide a long walk in the countryside is better than anything else I could be doing with my time on any given day.
This constant pushing to do more, be more, and have more is just one way that toxic positivity manifests itself. The topic is huge and the more I’ve read about it the more fascinating I’ve found it.
If you have been affected by anything I’ve written here deeply enough to worry about it, please talk to someone about it.