Positivity – a word we hear often these days, probably more often than we would like to at times. For the longest time, when I heard someone telling me to be positive, I imagined it to mean that I should always be happy, have a smile on my face, never feel sad or blue or annoyed, and always make people smile and laugh. It felt like an impossible goal to achieve and I wondered how anyone could be happy all the time; it felt unnatural. Have you felt this way too? Can positivity really be toxic, considering we all want to, in fact, be happy? What does it all mean? Why does positivity get such a bad rep? Let us try to make sense of it.
Positivity – What the dictionaries say
I looked up a few popular dictionaries for the literal meaning of this word and they all threw up one definition – the practice or the act of being positive. I thought, that definition does not really help me now, does it? We all know it means being positive, but what does it REALLY mean?
I also came across an article that said that this word seems to bring a feeling of negativity to people’s minds, especially lately. This is what is frequently referred to as toxic positivity – when someone says something they feel is a good thing to say but makes you feel worse rather than better. Is that not ironic that a word that urges us to be positive makes us feel negative instead?
Positivity – What it really means
I wish to share my understanding of this word, this term, this concept with you and maybe make the word just a bit less negative for you the next time you come across it. This is a term I have come across very often during my Yoga studies and, often, it has been interpreted and used the way I have stated earlier, being happy and smiley all the time.
When people realise I teach Yoga, they usually expect and assume that how I will be. They are often disappointed because I am a person of many emotions, and my normal expression is a serious, no-smile straight face, possibly lost in my thoughts. I feel anger, annoyance, sadness, and many other emotions not classified as positive. But I strongly believe in positivity and follow it to the best of my ability; if you ask me, I’d say I’m a fairly positive person.
Positivity, to me, means optimism, which is another highly misunderstood word. Both of these words are synonyms in my understanding and bring forth a wonderful aspect of perspective, but the meaning is lost in a lot of the dialogue we have, especially on social media and mainstream media.
Positivity is a matter of perspective. When we are faced with a problem, do we focus on the fact that we have a problem or on finding solutions, figuring out the cause of the problem, or dealing with the repercussion of the problem? When we focus on the problem, we forget we have tools to deal with it – our mind, our loved ones who are our support system, our mentors, our skills and expertise – and expend all energy on feeling sad or angry or frustrated that the problem exists.
When we take a step back and start looking at the what, why, how, when of the problem, it broadens our perspective. It gives us a better understanding of the problem itself as well as what resources we need to deal with it. It also tells us what we need to focus on the most – on a solution, on dealing with the surge of emotions within us, on reaching out to someone, or something else entirely.
Here are a few examples of toxic positivity, statements and words we may have all heard or said at some point in our lives:
- It is not as bad as you’re making it to be, really
- You should just smile more and you’ll feel better
- Other people have bigger problems than you do
- You should just let it go
- You have it so much better than many others
I admit I am guilty of saying some of these things with the best of intentions, not realising how damaging they could feel. But it is important to learn from our mistakes and not repeat them, hurting more people or ourselves in the process.
Positivity, on the other hand, could sound more like this:
- I know you’re struggling right now, but you’re being so brave about it!
- Can I do something to help make it better for you?
- We all have our problems and it is important to take our time to deal with them
- I know it’s really difficult to let this go
- You’re blessed with so much strength to deal with this difficult situation!
These are just examples, and there may be ways you can make these even better. I continually think of ways I can make my words more encouraging and positive without being dismissive of the emotions at play. At times, just acknowledging that the other person is dealing with something that is difficult for them goes a long way, and this applies to acknowledging this in ourselves as well.
There are times I cannot think of anything to say that does not feel pointless because the situation is such (for example, terminal sickness or death of a loved one), and silence (or a hug) works best for me at such times. Knowing that someone is there, present for us, can already be something positive in some situations.
I just wanted to give these examples to differentiate between positivity and toxic positivity. Toxic positivity ignores emotions and expects us to put up a happy face for the world even if we are crumbling within; what we show the world becomes the most important thing here. Positivity, on the other hand, encourages us to acknowledge emotions and difficult situations, offer help, and step back when required. Positivity focuses our attention and energy on the right things, and that focus could change from one situation to the next or from one moment to the next.
Positivity is being eternally hopeful for ourselves, our lives, and the world around us. It is about not becoming cynical but remaining practical and realistic, without letting it dim our joy, our experience of love and support, and finding that aspect in every situation that helps us keep going. It is a tool we give ourselves to move forward with life and through difficult situations and decisions.
Do reach out to me here or on Instagram if you are struggling with something and not sure what to do or who to talk to. I could maybe help guide you to the right resources within you or around you that could help in some way. I am here, if you need someone!