The Horrors of Toxic Positivity: Why We Need To Stop Romanticizing The Lockdown

The National Commission of Women (NCW) which receives complaints of domestic violence across India received 257 calls in the last week of March from women during the period of national lockdown..  Childline India received 92,105 calls asking for protection from abuse and violence as per data shared by the organization on 7th April, 2020. The number of calls, according to the deputy director of the organization, had increased by fifty percent since the lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24th. According to a study conducted by the National Family Health Survery (NFHS) released in 2018, 99.1% of sexual violence cases are not reported, and in most instances, the perpetrator of abuse is the victim’s partner. The NFHS is a nationally representative survey covering nearly 700,000 women between the ages of 15 and 49 years. If we were to put these bits of information into perspective, and take into account women below the ages of fifteen and above the age of forty-nine years, it would indicate that the number of instances of abuse and violence are much higher than the ones being reported even during the period of this lockdown.

Due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, anxiety and depression are on the rise. People are experiencing fear and panic.

In the midst of all of this, there are different narratives emerging. One encourages people to be productive. Another talks of the world slowing down and advises us to make use of this time to settle into this new space and read, meditate, dance and sing, and to look for the magic in the simplest of things. It talks about humanity healing, the planet healing, and I must admit that when I first read it, I thought it was beautiful. The moment I read it, impulsively, I shared it on my Instagram Story. A little while later, I received a message from someone, “I am feeling so helpless! My partner is abusive. Last month I had decided that I cannot tolerate it anymore. I was going to my parents’ home next week and I had planned never to return to him again. This lockdown has completely upset those plans. I see posts of my friends doing yoga at home, cooking new dishes, and I cannot do anything. I am constantly vigilant because if I do something that upsets him, I will bear the brunt of it. I feel stuck! Can I really meditate at a time like this? What is wrong with me?”

The moment I read that message, for a brief moment, I felt so ashamed of myself. Without realizing it, a part of me had just bought into this narrative of toxic positivity. For the uninitiated, toxic positivity is a culture of portraying oneself as being happy no matter what. It pushes people into viewing only the bright side of life as it prescribes that being positive, and being positive alone, is the right way of living life.

Have you ever pretended to be happy when you are not? How many times have you scrolled through Instagram and seen nothing but happy faces, ideal lifestyles and breath-taking scenes? Or do you notice a friend who you know is having a troubled marriage, yet posts pictures with her partner posing as a happy couple? That is toxic positivity in a nutshell. Toxic positivity pressurizes us to portray an image of ourselves living our best lives, which may be far from reality.  But, our obsession with being positive, both, individually and as a culture, means that we do not create the space for the far more complex, real, raw human experience. We end up not creating space for people to feel, both, free and safe enough to talk about their struggles. Toxic positivity often ends up silencing and shaming those who are suffering alone inside their homes, making them question what is wrong with them or wonder about their inability to emotionally cope.

There is value in making the most out of every situation and using this opportunity we have been given to explore new skills; however, we also need to realize that new issues do arise even amidst the quietness of our solitude confinement. I am consciously using the word ‘confinement’ here because it is a fact. It is important to remember that we are not home on an extended holiday. It is a forced shelter-in-place due to a global pandemic. We are all caged in, compressed into spaces which we are not used to occupying for such long durations. Many of us are yearning for the world outside and its charms so much that we have now begun to romanticize from our windows. Suddenly, the act of simply going downstairs to buy bread feels like a moving experience.

At a personal level, I am learning to stay open to my feelings and experience each moment as authentically as I dare. I’ve often fallen victim to this narrative of toxic positivity and there is a tendency to keep it together and be strong, but this lockdown is teaching me to just accept what is and surrender to the real, authentic experience of my being. There was a time when people thought I was care-free, nothing ruffled my feathers, and I was such a positive person that they felt really inspired and motivated when they met me or spoke to me! For a long time, I believed that lie too. I used to think of myself as this beautiful soul that’s perennially happy, always high in spirit, and who attracts good vibes only. Of course, I am all of this. At the same time, I am also someone who feels scared on numerous occasions, panics at the idea of baring herself and exposing her vulnerable side, is insecure about her looks at times, and feels lonely and hurt when she’s misunderstood. Today, I am comfortable expressing even those parts of me that make me uncomfortable for I have realized that camouflaging all the layers of fear, sadness, anxiety with layers and layers of fake happiness is only a temporary solution.

However, apart from my training as a mental health professional, it took me several workshops, retreats and personal therapy sessions to be at peace with all parts of me. This lockdown for many people is triggering as well as traumatizing because a lot of us are not even aware of the trauma and wounds that we carry within us from childhood. Before the lockdown, we may have been going on with life overworking, binge-eating, being a tad bit too obsessed with exercising, having physical ailments and chronic pain yet going about with our usual routine. For a lot of people, issues at home were avoided by spending long hours in the office, and issues of loneliness were swept under the rug with excessive socialization. A lot of us were never aware of the pain that lay at the roots of these behaviours because day-to-day business keeps these invasive memories at bay. Day-to-day activities get in between us and the stored trauma and emotional memories that are alive in our cells. In some ways, the day-to-day keeps us from healing, from dealing with how we are really feeling on the inside. But, from a different perspective, it takes the edges off the intolerable. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Our day-to-day lives are not just a distraction. They are keeping us safe, protecting us from the true extent of hurt that we quietly hide in our hearts. For many, this lockdown has taken away the daily distractions which is why a lot of suppressed emotions are finally coming up. Ideally, the best way of working through these issues is under the guidance of a trained mental health professional. However, the lockdown has suddenly pushed us all into solitary confinement and without any warning, without any access to this awareness, to this knowledge, to this expert help, mental health issues are on the rise.

At such a time, asking people to meditate, self-introspect, find solace and be at inner peace is cruel. Perhaps, it is also slightly privileged, and a tad bit arrogant as well, to assume that it is going to be possible for everyone. It is also ill-informed. First of all, people with trauma find it categorically impossible to sit and meditate for even a few minutes. A nervous system locked in hypervigilance makes one attention-deficit. The mind and the body are not at ease, and there is restlessness. Attempts at such a practice can generate a sense of panic over peace. Closing the eyes can be a big no-no in cases of acute trauma, as many people find that it simply sends them into flashback. Breathwork can also cause more old emotion to surface—it won’t necessarily soothe and centre people. The reality is that dealing with trauma is a much more delicate dance than most understand. It is one that requires us to dip our toes in and pull them back out again. We must learn to paddle around in the shallows first. In effective trauma work, the last thing we ever want to do is unleash a tidal wave of old emotion, all, in one go. The already overloaded nervous system cannot handle it. To feel it all at once would be, quite frankly, too much, especially in the absence of a trained mental health professional.  

At a time when our health is at risk, when some of us are away from loved ones, when there are clearly unknown political agendas in play, when none of us have access to any personal space as such, when all of us are confined to the four walls of our house all the time, it is only natural to feel confused, scared, agitated, trapped, alone, anxious, depressed or angry. Overnight, for many of us, our freedom of movement was taken away. We don’t know when it will be returned to us, and for many, this uncertainty is killing.

The tyranny of the culture of toxic positivity robs us from being able to authentically express our true emotions. As a society, we are constantly being motivated to lock down certain emotions like anger, grief, sadness and this practice is cruel. It is unkind. And more importantly, ineffective. And we are doing it to ourselves, and we also do it to others. According to a study done by Srivastava et. al. (2009), ignoring and suppressing these emotions only makes them stronger and impairs social functioning and adaptation in the long run [1].  The person spending this lockdown meditating and reading a book is not doing better than the person crying their eyes out in a room by themselves because they are unable to cope. Maybe, one of them is just having a better day.

However, it is true that all of us will learn new things during this time. Some of us will learn to be quiet. Some of us will learn to value our time with loved ones. Some of us will realize the need to prioritize oneself over others. A lot of us will also go through different emotional crises during different periods of this lockdown. One day we may be feeling fine, and the next day, we may feel crippled by immense anxiety. Not all of us will get access to the help we need and deserve.

Let’s make use of our time to realize that while it is important to uplift our own selves and others during difficult times, there is a thin line between support and toxic positivity. Everyone’s experience is different and equally valid. It’s alright if you are loving the fact that all your loved ones are home with you. It’s alright if you are glad to be working from home. It’s alright if you are decluttering your house and recording songs on your guitar once again. It’s alright if you are panicking about the loss of income. It’s alright if your mind is filled with negative thoughts and you don’t feel an inch of gratitude for being indoors. It’s alright if you feel all these things, or none of them at all, or are somewhere in between. It’s alright if you keep swinging back and forth from one moment to the next.

No one is failing. We are all doing the best we can at all given moments as per the resources we have available. According to me, it is more empowering to be a part of a world where everyone is honest about how they feel, where no emotion is categorized as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, where all feelings are welcome with love and acceptance, without any judgment.  So, let’s just take a moment and hold space for each other and all that it is that one may be feeling. And, perhaps,when we are able to do that, truly we can say that humanity is beginning to heal.

  1. Srivastava, S., Tamir, M., McGonigal, K. M., John, O. P., & Gross, J. J. (2009). The social costs of emotional suppression: a prospective study of the transition to college. Journal of personality and social psychology96(4), 883–897.

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