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Motivational memes and cheerleading mantras: The rise of toxic positivity

WhatsApp groups across the capital are getting a little bit too #hashtag grateful this lockdown

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15 February 2021

’m so bored of WFH, I’ve hit a wall,” I moaned, in a message hastily fired off to a WhatsApp group of my oldest friends. “I’ve had enough.” Within minutes, a reply came from one of my gang, a community nurse who spends long days trussed up in PPE, treating elderly Covid patients.

“At least you’re sitting on your bum all day, rather than wiping other people’s while wondering if you’re going to catch the virus,” she retorted. Fair point. Chastened, I apologised. I tried my luck with another friend. She responded to my complaint with a photo of a dreamy sunset, with an inspirational quote from the Dalai Lama emblazoned across it. Did I take on board these recommendations to buck up and be more positive? Does throwing my phone across the room and screaming into the abyss count as positivity?

Toxic positivity is rife. It’s the pandemic version of #firstworldproblems, the notion that unless your suffering involves bereavement, financial ruin or losing your job/ home then it’s inconsequential, and you just need to shut up. “It’s the trauma Olympics,” says Olivia James, a Harley Street therapist who treats anxiety and trauma. “It’s competitive. But just because there’s someone who is worse off than you — and there always is — it doesn’t mean your feelings are invalid.”

Social media is fertile ground for toxic positivity: one Londoner I speak to, who wishes to remain anonymous, reports that he now refers to his best friend as “Hashtag Blessed” behind his back, such is the friend’s insatiable appetite for motivational Instagram mantras. “He’s a PT so being a cheerleader is, to be fair, part of his job but he’s just been unbearably chipper during the pandemic,” he says. “It just doesn’t feel very honest.”

Novelist Zoe May, 34, avoids talking about her negative emotions on social media for fear of attracting scorn. “I still have my job, I’m not in peril, I’m not on the Covid frontline but I’ve been really down,” she says. “I spent 2019 in a lockdown of sorts because I put my life on hold to write a book. I told myself that 2020 was going to be my big year — lots of dating, travel, cultural experiences. And then of course, nothing. But I don’t feel like I’m entitled to complain — it sounds so trivial.”

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“This pervasive chin up attitude is dangerous,” says Zoe Watson, a locum GP with a specialist interest in mental health who runs Make & Create in Walthamstow, which offers creative workshops to help improve attendees’ mental health. “It’s important to feel emotions like anger or sadness, to sit with them and acknowledge them. It’s part of a grieving process — we’re grieving for our old lives. Denying your feelings will have a negative impact on your overall mental health.”

The positive psychology movement has a lot to answer for. It gained huge traction in the US (of course) in the Nineties when the discipline’s emphasis shifted from treating mental illness to encouraging the pursuit of wellbeing. “The cultural pressure to be happy all the time has become a goal in its own right,” says cultural historian Tiffany Watt Smith, author of The Book of Human Emotions. “But recent psychological research shows it’s important to live a diversity of emotional experience. If we find it hard to acknowledge those feelings, we can get in trouble later on because no one can indemnify themselves against grief or loss — they’re part of the architecture of our lives. If we don’t know how to tolerate those emotions, we’ll really struggle when they hit us.”

Therapist James agrees. She believes what she calls “the love and light brigade” (looking at you, Mr Hashtag Blessed) can do more harm than good. “One client was told by a previous therapist to put her negative thoughts into a balloon and let them float away. Lovely image but how will she feel next time she has a negative feeling? Like it hasn’t worked and she’s a failure.”

James advises that if you are really struggling with dark thoughts, you should seek professional help, but, on a more quotidian level, we shouldn’t expect to feel positive all the time, especially not now. As for me, I should pick my audience next time I complain about my job — in hindsight, a frontline NHS worker wasn’t the ideal ear to bend. “We shouldn’t have our feelings invalidated but there is a time and place to wallow — and it might not be in public,” says James.

The key, says GP Zoe Watson, as we gingerly pick our way through this collective trauma, is to make the distinction between toxic positivity and hope. “The reality of being human is that we experience grief and loss, but at the end of everything there is always hope. While toxic positivity is pretending sadness isn’t there and denying your experience, hope is acknowledging that sadness — but believing that at some point the day will come when things will get better.” And so it will — but there’s no need to send me a “This Too Shall Pass” meme, thanks.

Have you got toxic positivity?

Are you a Little Miss (Relentless) Sunshine, a Negative Norman or somewhere in between?

Your mum bought you a gratitude journal for Christmas. Have you used it?

A Of course. You rise daily at 6am to list three things you’re grateful for, which helps set your intentions for the day.

B You tried but felt a bit of a twat and tailed off late December.

C You’ve repurposed it as your 2021 shitlist, aka your magnum opus. You’ve nearly run out of pages.

What are your reflections on the past year?

A It wasn’t ideal but things could be so much worse, right? On the plus side, you learned how to bake sourdough and knit your own underpants. #blessed

B You’ve been up and down more times than Joe Wicks doing a burpee session.

C If you ever have to do a Zoom quiz again, you will kill.

You’ve had a bad day. What do you do?

A Sternly remind yourself that you are not an ICU doctor, homeless, destitute or dead from Covid. So what have you got to complain about?

B Sink a bottle of wine and rewatch Schitt’s Creek. That’s better.

C When is it not a bad day? You kick-back by doom-scrolling and shouting at the news.

Your thoughts on the mantra “Positive vibes only”?

A Big fan. You use it on your Instagram Stories most weeks and if a friend is feeling low, you send it to them as you know what a boost it can be.

B You saw it on a T-shirt in Ibiza once and thought it was quite nice.

C Zero tolerance. If you spot it on social media, you make a point of responding with a vomiting face emoji.

Mostly As

Wow. Are you Ned Flanders? Stop being so tirelessly cheery, it’s weirding us out.

Mostly Bs

They say you have to take the rough with the smooth in life. And you do.

Mostly Cs

Cheer up, love, it might never happen.