Too Much of A Good Thing: A Real Problem Called Toxic Positivity

We have developed, as a species, a real aversion to anything we perceive as negative. This is no big surprise; negativity is exhausting in many ways. I don't know many people who stop and wish for hardship, difficulties, conflicts or grief. I sure as heck don't; but it doesn't stop life from bestowing it.


When Covid "happened", the province of Québec decided to brighten the collective spirits with a special rainbow-spangled message... "Ça va bien aller" (translating to "Everything will be alright." You couldn't turn away from it. It was on buses, on airplanes, on billboards and store windows and eventually slapped onto the side of the Dorval airport, where it hit me like a multicolored freight train.


A Tweet from YUL announcing the bright, positive new façade.

I wasn't relieved, comforted or empowered. Seeing this, I was angry.


Without any hard feelings towards Gabriella Cucinelli for her message meant to inspire hope, it did begin my journey into trying to understand why I felt so differently from the intended result. I felt angry, indignant, and ended up feeling ashamed for feeling this way.


I decided to start dissecting my emotions from there.


In April 2020, when this message started being propagated, I had just endured the loss of my career. I was in the middle of teaching a new-hire pilot groundschool when the message was conveyed that the class was cancelled until further notice. Before long, I was notified of my layoff. My personal identity at that time was shattered. My financial security was taken away. My mental health suffered. All of this was imposed on my very new marriage. I was suffering, and the message that was surrounding me was "Everything will be okay." There was a meaningless promise for future happiness. The real problem was, I was in that very moment, in quite a bit of pain. What I needed was validation. I needed to feel heard. I didn't need to be told that things would be different at some other vague point in time, because right then, things were not good.


I wrote about these difficult feelings in two previous blogposts (Career-Killing Covid-19 Coronavirus and Hindsight 2020 & the Bitter Taste of 2021). Writing proved itself to be incredibly cathartic as I processed those difficult feelings and was empowered by the discussions that it inspired and the folks who reached out to me sharing their similar stories. I noticed that those discussions always happened in hushed tones with much secrecy, as if admitting that we were struggling while facing an unprecedented situation in our lives was something to be ashamed of. That resonated with my own feelings of shame when it came to my reaction to the inspirational slogan brightening up the locked down city of Montréal.


But why shame?


Here's where it starts getting complicated.


With some introspection I came to the conclusion that the positive platitudes that were offered to me, often with positive intent, left me feeling silenced. I felt that it dismissed my hardships and encouraged me to clam up, resulting in a feeling of shame for my emotionality when facing this life-changing event. I wanted to explore this phenomenon a bit closer and came upon the work of Whitney Goodman regarding toxic positivity.




After reading the book, I can't really say I was surprised, shocked or truly enlightened by it. It is written in very basic language and flows quite well and quite quickly. Honestly? It reads like a long Instagram post. What the book did do, however, was label the phenomenon I was experiencing and help me put a label on my mindset, which helped validate my emotional experience.


Toxic positivity has the bad reputation of being something of a "new trend" or some other new fad for people to complain about, but the reality is that the unrealistic expectation for seamless happiness has existed for ages. For example, within the philosophies of eugenics or the atomic age's popularized "happy housewife" stereotype.


Toxic positivity isn't a term "used by downers to hate on the optimistic", it is a phenomenon with strict definitions, one that involves dismissing negative emotions and responding to human distress with false reassurances or platitudes rather than empathy, and can often include forced gratitude. A quick example to demonstrate this: a woman loses a pregnancy to miscarriage. When confiding her grief in a friend, the friend says "Life only gives you what you can handle." In that moment, this message is telling the grieving woman that life has bestowed upon her the loss of her unborn child because it was a trauma she could tolerate. It silences her grief, it does not express empathy, it does not validate her pain which is an inescapable part of this tragedy, of a mother losing a child. In another example, forced gratitude would sound like "Be thankful for the child that you have."; a mother can be thankful for her living child while grieving the loss of the other. Those feelings are not exclusive: it is crucially important to understand that emotions can exist simultaneously.


"BUT I MEAN WELL!!!! STOP ENGAGING IN BAD VIBES!!!!"


Emotions require processing and addressing, this does NOT mean they should imprison you. Reaching out to another person for emotional support is a natural and healthy habit. You're allowed to be angry, sad, distressed, grieving, scared, apprehensive or disgusted the same way you are allowed to feel joy, passion, happiness and love. Humanity offers you an entire spectrum of emotions to experience the world with and distressing emotions actually help create and solidify human bonds if we are received with patience, empathy and support.


There are, of course, people who use negativity as a weapon to victimize themselves or others: this is never acceptable and is not at all in the spectrum of this discussion. You should always take into consideration your own mental state before making yourself available to support others and abuse is never acceptable in any context.


When I was furloughed, the immediate reaction from my friends and family were their condolences: of course, at that moment in time this reaction was appropriate, I was grieving, I was scared, I had experienced a loss. However, what made me embark on the journey resulting in this blog post, was my recovery from this furlough. As I decided to forge a new path ahead in the world of aerial application.... the condolences kept coming, and inbound were the platitudes. I would announce with glee my ground-loading position in the Summer of 2020, my first dip into the industry I desired to be in. The reaction? "Don't worry, the airlines will pick up again soon." ...what?

Although I was joyful and determined in my new heading, from my ground loading days in Moose Jaw, to my aerial application training in North Battleford, to my first season on the Ag-Cat and onwards to my return to school, people were constantly overwhelming me with "hopeful" messages concerning my eventual future at the airline. It became clear to me that the folks reaching out with those messages had not "heard" me: even online, many made assumptions of my mental state as a "former airline pilot" without reading the content of my shared experiences. This became such a phenomenon that I started to wonder if I should be feeling happy at all. I started to question my own feelings. I was truly happy, but I felt as though I wasn't allowed to be, or perhaps shouldn't be, as per public reaction. It created an intolerable feeling of cognitive dissonance that was only exacerbated by my peers when my recall occurred. I chose to pursue my current avenue rather than return to work at the time. Messages of "This is the best job you'll ever have.", of "You should be grateful for the opportunity to return" and more started to flow. I wasn't UNgrateful for the opportunity to return at all, and choosing a different avenue didn't mean the former wasn't a great job. I had had this personal transformation forcefully pushed upon me by the pandemic. I was told be resilient, to adapt, yet people didn't expect me to change. I couldn't wrap my head around it. In fact, I took some time away from social media to digest it. Social media makes sharing a very dangerous thing. I share my stories, my heartfelt emotions, my inner thoughts and my genuine struggles in the firm belief that it might reach someone else living a similar experience, in that they may feel less alone. Perhaps, in this context, to feel less ashamed of living through those forbidden emotions of pain, sadness, anger and fear. However, in doing so I invite those who disagree within the sanctum of my inner thoughts and my vulnerabilities. As I share my experiences, my sober approach to hard feelings is usually confronted by accusations via positive affirmations. The danger in these messages is that they make assumptions of generic experiences. "If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life" doesn't ring true for a passionate female professional who was perhaps sexually abused at work and now lives with trauma or fear. "Life only gives you what you can handle" might not resonate with the construction worker who just had digits amputated in a workplace accident, and is now confronted with his feelings of grief, anger, and fear. These "once size fits all" sayings can be a dangerous weapon in silencing those who are suffering and in isolating them with their pain.


The farm has taught me so much about life, and it has in this context too. We have had the best AND the worse lambing season ever here. I have the most lambs on the ground (and yet a couple ewes to go!) with 15 births thus far. Yet, I have had the most (and only) birthing losses I have ever had, with 4 stillborn lambs. I am well aware of the circle of life, of the ol' "livestock means deadstock" and of the realities of farming. And you know what? I was still devastated. In no way did I forget how lucky I was to have 11 live, healthy, bouncy little babies blessing me while I grieved those that were gone. However, I cried, I sought support, felt heard, and redoubled my efforts in tending to my animals. Next year will be a better year. I am hopeful, I am blessed, and I am wounded, all at once. Having a glass half full can have you simultaneously grateful for the refreshment but unfortunately still parched.


So before I leave you to ponder, perhaps thoughtfully, perhaps feeling offended, perhaps feeling that I am stupid for "surrendering" to negativity, I'd like to introduce you to a concept called "radical acceptance". Pain is a part of life, much like the Sun and the Moon and the air we breathe. The world is not a fair place: children can get cancer, the weather can destroy homes, bad things happen to good people.. it is not to be morbid, nor to feel helpless, in fact, it is to be prepared and learning to manage these difficulties, processing those feelings, recovering from those misfortunes or learning to live with them. You can adore your work and still be burnt out. You can be thankful to survive an accident while still grieving the loss of your mobility. It is okay to acknowledge the shadow that comes with light, the world isn't lit by fluorescents!


So perhaps, if I was asked what else I might have used as a slogan for the pandemic, I'd have proposed something a little more "realistic" in mind...