Fake a smile, lie and say, you’re better now than ever and your life’s okay. Well, it’s not.
– The Script.
“Why are you so negative?” is one of the many common phrases I’ve come across while discussing my problems with someone; often with a sprinkle of “Think about all the good things in life!” Not to forget the classic “Happiness is a choice,” which also weasels its way into the conversation or generally from posts or people doling out ‘life advice’. Oh, you’re sad? Just stop being sad. Seems so simple, doesn’t it? Reducing an entire human experience to mere words, tearing it down, and invalidating one’s troubles in the name of ‘cheering them up’.
This practice of imposing unrealistic ideals of so-called optimism and the need to be happy all the time is emotionally destructive, and unknowingly so. These very expectations set the precedent for an endless cycle of disappointments and setbacks. People assume that a life devoid of problems is what they really aspire to, but that’s far from being true or even possible. Everyone in this world comes accompanied by their trials and triumphs. And as life goes on, we learn and unlearn ways in which we deal with both joy and sorrow. However, preaching clichéd words of advice like “be positive” can often have an adverse impact on the person and their suffering.
These inspirational quotes we come across especially on social media, or even on mugs, t-shirts, billboards, and the likes elusively take root in our minds. While they are meant to be benevolent and aim to help, they end up causing more harm than good. It starts with a simple thought sowing the seeds of self-doubt: “What’s wrong with me?” This very seed grows and ironically flowers into harmful mental health implications that could have been avoided, to begin with; could have been tackled simply if one had dealt with their problems in a healthy, rather than dismissive manner.
The constant need to portray a perfect life on social media is what has now led to people living a life of solitude despite being around the people that care about them. Modern loneliness, as Lauv called it – “Never alone, but always depressed” accurately defines what many people, especially the youth feels today. Playing pretense even in front of those closest to us because they said “good vibes only,” or feeling pressured to put on a smile subtly makes one trivialize their everyday struggles. This is one of the very common trends that actively feeds the stigma surrounding mental health.
It’s quite surprising for this is extremely active in the generation that advocates for mental health the most. The term for such unhealthy standards for happiness is toxic positivity. It is defined as the overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state that results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of authentic human emotional experience. While it’s important to lead a positive life, it simply is implausible to expect ourselves and others to be “happy all the time”. Because, no, smiling will not wipe out all of one’s troubles. Quite similar to the timeless mantra of anything in excess being harmful, so is the excessive dosage of “don’t worry be happy”.
How, then, does one recognize its presence in our lives, especially after it having been normalized to such a great extent? It manifests in our everyday behavioral changes. For example, shielding one’s actual emotions from everyone to the point of lying to oneself. It can also leave one feeling perpetually guilty for feeling even slight discomfort, or ‘negativity’. External signs can include being given an outside perspective but internalizing it to the point of shaming oneself. This usually happens when we start comparing our problems or traumas with other people and say “oh this is nothing, they have it so much worse!” Shame is one of the most crippling emotions one can feel, particularly when it comes to dealing with one’s anxieties.
These are all signs that point to an unhealthy cycle of coping that has taken root in our lives. The pressure to maintain an image of encouragement and optimism costs a lot more than a few fake smiles. It alters our personality on levels we don’t recognize immediately or even for years after adopting it. While people will not stop telling you to smile or “stay strong, stay positive,” it is on you to filter out the toxicity while remaining true to yourself. It is on you to not always give in to the pressure of these unrealistic expectations.
We do, however, need to give to ourselves those positive reaffirmations. By doing so, we can practice better control of our emotions, while remaining grounded. Pretending to be “okay” in certain situations is fair game as long as it doesn’t take a toll on your real feelings. And when it does, turn that mug with the “everything is good” mantra around, and allow yourself the space to feel uncomfortable in the moment. For it is all temporary. Emotions like guilt and shame that develop as a result to keep up the pretense are sometimes more immobilizing than the problems themselves. Which is why it’s important to take note of when these words of encouragement are favorable to us, and when it’s just a curtain covering up the fractures of felicity.