Opinion: Toxic positivity after one year of pandemic

One of the most common attitudes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been watching the positive side of the matter. However, in the extreme, this can be dangerous.

Woman wearing mask showing thumb up

While this attitude is useful insofar as it can help us keep our eyes on a clear goal and cope with the process, it can be dangerous in the extreme. Photo: Freepik

LatinAmerican Post | Vanesa López Romero

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Leer en español: Opinión: La positividad tóxica a un año de pandemia

A year ago in most Latin American countries, mandatory confinement began to be applied. The first wave of COVID-19 forced the majority of the population around the world to stay at home and completely change their lifestyle, the way they interact and work . Many of us were fortunate to keep our jobs remotely, and therefore meet the basic needs of our lives. However, many more lost their jobs, were ruined and even lost a roof to live on .

These types of situations, obviously, not only have an impact on the individual and country economies, but also affect people's mental health . This does not necessarily mean that you start to suffer from mental illnesses, but they can be more common than we would think and it can also affect the way we see the world. Feelings like: sadness, negativity and uncertainty come to the fore, and we couldn't ask for less in the midst of a situation that is indeed uncertain.

One year after the pandemic and confinement began, there are many attitudes towards life that we have seen around us, but one that has had a special role is to look at the situation positively, see the best part and take profit from it. While this attitude is useful to the extent that it can help us keep our eyes on a clear goal and get through the process, it can be dangerous in the extreme .

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Looking for the positive side of everything and putting it above the emotions and natural reactions that we have in the face of adversity, can not only cause us to ignore them , but precisely that ignoring brings consequences that, in the long termn, can be even more serious . This is called toxic positivity , and it consists of having an extremely positive outlook on life in general and, above all, in the midst of difficult situations. 

What is toxic positivity?

In the book The getting of resilience from the inside out (2019) by Sally Baker, therapist and psychologist, the author says that "the problem with toxic positivity is that it is a denial of all the emotional aspects that we feel when faced with any situation that challenge us . " But what is toxic positivity? In a BBC interview with Dr. Antonio Rodellar, the expert explains that the concept of toxic positivity originated in the 1980s with the psychologist Martin Seligman, who popularized positive psychology whose premise was to address certain mental illnesses such as depression, to starting from transforming negative thoughts into positive ones by accepting the presence of negative ones in the first instance.

However, with the passage of time, this idea was distorted and what we call toxic positivity emerged, which puts the idea that optimism is what can get us out of difficult moments and even cure mental illnesses and, in this order of ideas, ignores negative emotions, making it impossible to treat the problem at its roots .

"Positive psychology applied correctly is a very useful practice, but it indiscriminately generates a very partial vision of reality and a feeling of helplessness. Denying painful and harmful situations in life is like seeing reality with only one eye", assures Rodellar for the BBC.

A danger amid the pandemic

One of the attitudes that bothered me the most when the pandemic began was to see the situation so optimistically to the point of judging those who fell into negative emotions and even those who had very high depressive peaks due to confinement and social distance . At one point, social media exploded with "live streaming" and posts inviting people to make the most of their time. I don't want to say that taking advantage of time was wrong, but pushing and judging for not being able to do it because literally the body does not respond, it seems irresponsible and not empathetic.

Toxic positivity try to romanticize a situation as extreme and problematic as the pandemic. It seems that even after everything we have seen throughout this year, we still do not accept that those of us who have the possibility of continuing to have a normal life are few compared to those who lost relatives, homes and whose life changed even more radical than ours. And, this idea of seeing everything with extreme optimism is not disassociated from social class .

Clearly those who claim the power to tell you that you should be fine are not people who live in extreme poverty and whose privileges are few or even nil. No. They are people who have many privileges and who, with a cell phone in hand, see themselves as authorities to go through life giving advice and motivating without taking into account that there is a being on the other side of the screen, someone who may have a mental illness, a person who may not be able to access psychological or psychiatric treatment .

And this is very dangerous, because in the midst of a historical moment in which we are making the existence of mental illnesses visible and fighting discrimination towards people who suffer from them, the fact that this romanticization of bad times appears because "we can learn from them and transform them into good things" and consequently, the toxic positivity generates an invisibility again .

We must be more responsible with the emotions and feelings of others. Do not pretend that, because for some it is easier to go over x or y situation, for the rest of the people it will be the same. That is an irresponsible view and, to tell the truth, naive.