Something I have been pulled up on more often than I would like to be is something called toxic positivity. If you haven’t come across this before, my good friends at Google tell me it is “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralisation of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimisation, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.”
I certainly don’t want to do this but apparently I do on occasion. In the context of where I slip up it is often things like saying ‘This strategy fixed my depression so you too can stop being depressed’. I can be overly positive and think that if I have overcome something then others should be able to do so as well. I feel like there can be a fine line between being supportive and useful and engaging in toxic positivity. Also where a person is mentally will often determine whether a statement is seen as helpful and as being toxically positive
When I was in my twenties there was no positivity in my life. I was a prisoner and my mental health was very poor. I had no sense of hope and no sense of a future for myself. One of the nurses employed at the prison medical centre thought she could fix my depression by setting me the task of writing out my ultimate goal and how I would achieve it. This might have worked if I was a bit depressed but I was in the depths of Hell so it just tressed me out and made me feel worse. My ultimate goal was to be dead but I figured the nurse wouldn’t approve of that! The document never got written. This nurse also used to tell me she was self destructive as a young person and had somehow addressed this but for me it was totally meaningless and stressful. I suspect there was a touch of toxic positivity and invalidation going on there.
As an advocate I need to be careful and make sure when I am providing tips and strategies that I don’t tell people that if they do some strategy or other that it will fix their mental health issues or that they just need some optimism. One of the biggest issues for me is around unsolicited advice. My favourite comedian, Hannah Gadsby, once said that she feasts on people trolling her (‘nom nom nom..’) I am the same with giving advice! I could give advice at an Olympic level! As I am a many times published author and people think I am an expert then lots of people let it go but they should’t. I do not need to be giving everyone unsolicited advice and I know how harmful it can be in the mental health space. If a person asks for advice on mental health then I should probably dispense some but if a person doesn’t ask me I need to be careful about dishing out the advice!
Another issue for me is that I am usually a very positive and resilient person. I am unusual in a lot of ways. I am a person with schizophrenia who works full time in a middle management job – I even supervise staff! Outside of my full time job I do basically an additional full time job in advocacy and writing. I manage my schizophrenia very well despite it being pretty brutal. It is treatment resistant which means that even though I take some pretty hard core medications I can still get psychotic. And if I do get psychotic I can write off the next two or three years of my life. I have had my illness since 1995 and it hasn’t got any easier. However one thing I do have is insight and self awareness. This enables me to know when to ask for help. I am also very positive and optimistic. It is rare for me to lose hope. I approach life with hope and engagement. For many others with mental illnesses though that optimism is not present and many people lack self awareness and insight. This means that me weighing in with others and trying to apply some optimism or insight may be interpreted as toxic positivity. And that is actually correct because with mental health your perspective is your truth. So Yennski jumping in and trying to help might actually not be helpful at all.
It is essential to remember when talking about mental health that our own experience is subjective and other people have a different experience. I think words like ‘should’ and ‘must’ are very unhelpful in this context. I can struggle with negative people or those who are always taking someone or other to court because they feel aggrieved. However I know that for those people my approach of optimism and forgiveness might be equally baffling to them, and that is fine.
I need to keep the issue of toxic positivity in the front of my mind while I am doing what I do as it is probably as unhelpful as negativity and deficits thinking. So please let me know if I ever do it!!