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The Spectrum Of Human Emotion – The Trap Of Toxic Positivity

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at KCL chapter.

The fact that you don’t have to feel happy and positive all the time is an important conversation topic in the context of mental health. Addressing how ‘toxic positivity’ operates in our society is as important as encouraging happiness and optimism, as it is vital that we embrace the full spectrum of human emotion.

It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that if someone has ‘good mental health’ they are happy and positive all the time. However, this is unrealistic. Our emotional range as human beings is so extensive and intrinsically complex that to strive for constant happiness would be an insult to our capabilities. It is a privilege to feel and experience such a scale of emotion (although it doesn’t always feel like it), and it is important to consider that negative emotions are not always unhelpful.

Feeling a negative emotion can often be productive, even though we may not recognise it in the moment. An experimental study found that experiencing disappointment can make people more likely to request help, which can be useful for development. For example, if you get a bad grade on an exam, you may initially make you feel upset and discouraged, but without these emotions, you won’t feel motivated to ask for help and improve for next time. If someone you care about upsets you in some way, you may feel hurt and confused, but research has shown that by expressing these emotions, you are heightening support and intimacy in your closest relationships.

Negative emotions can be effective drivers for positive change, but sometimes they serve no purpose other than to make us feel crap, but that’s okay! To feel so passionately and deeply is tightly woven into our humanity. If you were always happy, how would you know what ‘feeling happy’ was without a comparison? Think of it like not being able to have a rainbow without first having the rain.

Embracing the scale of human emotion is crucial to redefining ‘good mental health’ as it is unrealistic to strive for sustained happiness. However, this may not always seem like an option in modern society where we feel perpetual pressure to maintain a positive, happy, friendly demeanour. When our façade is fractured, the reality of how we’re really feeling peeking through, we feel vulnerable to judgment from our peers. Often faced with a ‘you’ll be fine’ and the extremely unhelpful ‘it could be worse’, we feel invalidated and misunderstood, turning it back onto ourselves and feeling guilty for feeling the way we do.

This can most commonly be defined as toxic positivity, which is ‘the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset’ and can be seen in many different areas of our lives. It can be projected onto us from loved ones, the workplace, or social media. Often coming from people who have our best interests at heart, we adopt other people’s expectations of our mental health and put pressure on ourselves to always appear okay.

This is prevalent in the workplace when you are expected to be professional which demands a persistent dazzling smile and agreeable behaviour, regardless of potential personal issues in our lives. Meeting this expectation can become difficult as it is so unrealistic and, after being confronted with another unhelpful positive statement from the bank of ‘just stay positive’ comebacks, we become less inclined to express how we’re truly feeling, which will inevitably harm our wellbeing.

Social media also plays a big role in upholding this unrealistic positive façade. As we absorb content based solely on how great everyone else’s life is, we internalise this, questioning why we aren’t ‘living our best life’ (whatever that even means) all the time. We compare our levels of happiness to other people’s without knowing anything about them, or what is going on in their lives behind the impenetrable wall of their Instagram account. It is important to be aware of how we internalise toxic positivity based on unrealistic expectations and to focus solely on our individual experiences.

So we know that toxic positivity tends to crop up in many areas of our lives, but how can we combat it?

Although you cannot control other people’s words and behaviour, you can control how you respond to them. Don’t be afraid to call someone out if you feel that they’re being toxically positive towards you, and remind them (and yourself) that it’s okay not to be okay. Learn from these interactions and change your behaviour towards others. Instead of regurgitating toxically positive statements, genuinely listen to someone’s problems and show empathy. Manage your negative emotions, but don’t deny them. It is important to recognise and learn from negative emotions rather than blocking them out or experiencing guilt for feeling the way you do.

These are just some ways I try to construct a healthy balance of emotions where toxic positivity cannot function. Although you cannot control how toxic positivity operates in society, you can create your own protective bubble where you don’t let it influence your expectations of your own well-being. I’ve found that by practising the act of feeling privileged to feel so richly and deeply, as well as releasing the expectations proposed by toxic positivity, I have developed a greater appreciation of those beautiful, happy, and joyful moments in life.

“It’s okay, you know? It’s okay to be you. It’s okay to just not be okay. It’s okay to not be okay.”

~ Kristen Stewart

Ellie Hughes is a writer at the Her Campus at King's Chapter covering the Wellness verticals on the site. Her writing covers areas such as mental and physical health, sex and relationships and general wellbeing advice to make you feel accepted, confident, and supported throughout your university journey. Although she is only a first-year student, her articles provide an insight into the daily anxieties and stresses of university life and how to combat these in healthy ways. Whether you’re just starting off or ending your adventure at King’s, Ellie’s articles will provide comfort, advice and support on how to stay mentally and physically healthy during a time of such change and uncertainty. Ellie is a first-year English student at King’s College London after studying English Literature, Maths and Product Design at A-Level. Having studied such a diverse range of subjects, she has an acute ability in understanding issues from various angles which is transferred into her perceptive advice regarding wellness in her articles. Although she hasn’t written professionally before, having studied English Literature at the highest level throughout her education, she displays confidence and eloquence in her writing, particularly when discussing gender, femininity and sexuality which she based her coursework on. Her independent studies centred around the use of sex and sensuality in exploring traditional gender roles; her research into feminist theory and the misrepresentation of women within literature is carried into her articles as explores the power of femininity and our sexuality and how to embrace that. Beyond Her Campus, Ellie enjoys buying overpriced oat chai lattes from cute coffee shops, haunting bookstores, socialising with friends, rewatching her staple TV series (Gossip Girl of course) and exploring London with her boyfriend. She loves going out for the day, experiencing new things, and eating yummy food (which she can’t afford) but will happily trade clubbing for a cosy night in watching Harry Potter.