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Uploaded:2021-07-27
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In this video, Chelsea talks about one of the most seemingly-good but actually-harmful trends on social media: toxic positivity.

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Hey, guys. It's Chelsea from The Financial Diet. And this week's video is sponsored by SmartyPig. Today I'm going to be going on a little bit of a rant about one of my least favorite internet phenomenons. Phenomena? I think it's phenomena, whatever. One of my least favorite internet things. You guys might have heard me talk before about things like Instagram self-care. And I'll link to my rant on that in the description. But it's basically this perception of self-care that mostly involves just doing whatever feels best to you in that moment, which anyone who has basically lived any adult life or faced consequences of any kind tends to result in an accumulation of not so great options later down the road.

For example, what might feel best to you in the moment is blowing off work, and drinking margaritas, and eating a ton of chips and guacamole. But what might not feel good is doing that many days in a row, possibly losing your job, and suffering all of the ill effects of way too many margaritas and chips. But that kind of faux self-care advice tends to apply to a lot of things across the board, including the distinctly financial, such as when you're getting advice to treat yourself via buying things-- many times things we might not be able to afford, which is how many people, myself included, get themselves into serious credit card debt by essentially self-caring themselves until a collection agency starts calling them multiple times a day. I've also talked a lot about the kind of advice that is constantly advising you to make the most of things, to be productive, to put higher and higher demands on yourself, both in and out of your work life, blurring the lines between the two and basically leaving it so that you feel guilty for having any free time of any kind.

This was particularly rampant during the height of the pandemic and quarantine when people were constantly referencing the fact that Shakespeare-- I can't remember what this anecdote was because frankly I've blocked it from my memory. But it's like, Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night while quarantining from the bubonic plague, or something like that. Anyway, it was like he did a lot with a shitty circumstance. And I guess the sort of insinuation there is that you should use the pandemic time to learn to juggle. I don't know what that was. But either way, the internet-- and especially social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok-- are incredibly good at giving superficial advice. Usually the kind of life advice that you're getting is not only coming from someone who is in a massive place of privilege to be able to make a lot of these choices, but it also comes with a level of disingenuousness.

Going back to the dubious self-care advice of treating yourselves to chips, and guac, and margs, or a pizza and wine whenever you feel like it becomes all the more egregious when it's being offered to you by literal influencer models who have a 15% body fat percentage, and clearly almost never indulge in those sorts of things. It's a similar phenomenon to being told that only ever seeing your country of origin is like only ever reading one page of a book, brought to you by a travel influencer who's literally being paid by hotels to go stay in Bali. The internet, and again these social platforms, often give what can pass for life, or even psychological, advice that basically boils down to, do what looks good on a social platform. We are not only, through these social platforms, constantly existing in a filtered and skewed version of everyone else's reality, we're being Loki encouraged to filter our own reality. And also being encouraged that when we don't feel our best, that means something must be wrong, which is where today's topic comes in-- the topic of toxic positivity.

This is actually probably, in many ways, the sort of faux psychological pop-science phenomenon that underpins a lot of this terrible advice. And especially with the past 18 months we've just had, it has become more pervasive and more pernicious than ever. For example, if you've been struggling to stay positive over the past year, you are definitely not alone. Census Bureau data illustrates that a third of Americans have shown signs of anxiety and depression in 2020. And whether or not you lost your job, you knew or know someone who has been directly impacted by COVID-19, have been yourself, or just were simply missing the way things used to be. Reality was incredibly overwhelming and still isn't fully back to normal for many of us. The fundamental circumstances in which we have been operating are not just not very positive, they are quite literally difficult for the human brain to navigate on a daily basis. And in many ways, phenomena like a global pandemic can be some of the worst to navigate psychologically because there are ways in which life felt eerily normal. And yet, more slow-drip ways in which the lack of normalcy was starting to accumulate in our psyche. We are evolutionarily adapted for those sort of big boom, fight or flight moments. We can deal with isolated moments of panic, or fear, or anxiety. But to have to live halfway between certainty and uncertainty, and suffering a kind of collective muted grief for 18 months is profoundly not a normal situation. And if you're not feeling overly positive or happy during that time, that is the norm and not the exception. But the cult of toxic positivity, which you'll see everywhere from those social platforms to the MLM girl-boss, you go get it, honey kind of mantras, to reality shows we watch, to the image of ourselves that we're expected to display at the workplace, toxic positivity invades it all.

And essentially, its most fundamental premise is that our goal in life should be to be as happy as possible, as positive as possible. And if we're not feeling either of those things, then it is within our power. And it is moreover our sort of ethical obligation to ourselves to change it. And even putting aside the idea that for many, mental health is not a question of willpower, mental illness is very literally an illness. And for many people, the experience of trying to live even a normal-- let alone a positive-- life while dealing with something like chronic anxiety or depression is akin to trying to run a marathon with a broken leg. For many of us, there is also often a huge disconnect between the extent we are expected to feel and portray positivity versus the extent to which it is even expectable to be so. At its core, toxic positivity is essentially the enforcement of blind optimism. The Psychology Group defines the term as the quote, "excessive and ineffective over-generalization of a happy optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience." And it makes perfect sense that this would pop up in America most predominantly, as we are a nation that has always prioritized happiness, even when compared to other countries, when psychologically, it's actually not very normal for people to be happy all the time, or even most of the time. As humans, we cycle through a huge range of emotions every single day.

And arguably, from a mental health standpoint, it is much healthier to aspire to become at peace with your various emotions and able to manage them moment-to--moment, rather than always trying to channel them back into something positive. Because often, this attempt to sort of pivot away from the negative, or scary, or upsetting feelings back into something positive can actually make those underlying distresses worse. So if you've been seeing and hearing a lot of phrases, whether on social media, at the workplace, in pop culture, or otherwise, like, everything happens for a reason, good vibes only, try not to think about it, choose happiness, or look for the silver lining, it's important that we not just dismiss those kind of mantras but also truly investigate how pernicious they are for the culture, and work to stop them. Because denying our feelings, beyond just being ineffective or potentially augmenting the underlying stress, actually can create feelings of shame on top of whatever might have been going on in the first place, and encourage people to stay quiet about whatever they might be struggling with because it isn't very positive to just be talking about your mental health issues.

 It's like, "No one wants to hear about dying grandma. That's a bummer. Tell us about the cute bathing suit you just bought." in fact, psychological studies have shown that this approach of simply suppressing negative feelings can actually have physiological impacts on the body. In general, too, one of the biggest problems with toxic positivity is how much it encourages everyone to pursue coping mechanisms that may not work for them. It might look the most appealing to channel anxiety, or stress, or fear, or boredom into something productive and attractive, like learning a new hobby, or getting really fit, or whatever else these influencers do to channel their negative emotions. But for many people, just getting out of bed and going about their day is a form of coping and getting by. I do think for many of us, the pandemic has taught us that ultimately we have to be a lot kinder with ourselves about what it takes to get through a day, especially for people who might have suffered a loss, or lost a job, or simply had to work from home 24/7 while caring for small children.

All of these things profoundly shifted our realities, while expecting us to keep up an appearance and a productivity level of a normal life. And I'm honestly surprised that that experience didn't do more to dampen down how popular toxic positivity can be as a kind of messaging. But in our own lives, both with ourselves and anyone we might be talking to, it's important to start replacing that reflexive approach to toxic positivity with things that actually hold space for a wider variety of emotions and experiences-- things like, that sounds really difficult. I'm here for you. It seems like you're really upset, stressed, or feeling low right now. Is there anything I can do to help? That sucks, and I'm listening. Tell me more about what you're going through. How can I support you right now? I'm so sorry you're going through this. Most people, when they're experiencing a negative emotion or situation, simply want to have space to experience it, and not feel like they're a burden to others.

They don't necessarily need or want you to offer solutions to the problem. But they do want to feel as though their problem is real and understood. Toxic positivity may have taken over our culture, and it may manifest in all types of different ways. And between how pervasive it is in our personal and professional lives, it can start to feel unusually normalized for how psychologically not normal it actually is. But it's important to remember that this very American obsession with happiness, and this very social media driven need to always be portraying the most positive version of yourself is not a sustainable answer to any sort of psychological distress. And it's also ultimately not that aspirational. I really think that it's important that we reframe what we consider aspirational emotionally. It's not the relentlessly upbeat mommy blogger who never misses a highlights appointment, even though she has seven children, (WHISPERING) which is really just the fact that she has a nanny that she never puts in any of her Instagram pictures. It's the person who is capable of sitting with all of their various experiences and doesn't feel the need to contort them into a perfectly imperfect Instagram caption in order to make them feel relatable and sufficiently optimistic at the end. Sometimes it's OK to take a break from work, or from posting on social media, or from feeling like you have to explain everything, or from feeling as though you have to portray an image of being OK even though you're going through, let's say, an incredible moment of grief or anxiety.

Ultimately, to me, what is most aspirational is someone who understands that the full range of human experience is going to contain many negative aspects, both inwardly and outwardly, and that trying to suppress them is only delaying an ultimate negative outcome that none of us have to delay in the first place. We can just surf the waves of our various experiences, including things like a global pandemic, which is pretty [BLEEP] negative, if you ask me, without trying to skip ahead to the happy ending. And if you want to feel more in control of your money, it's crucial to have specific, measurable financial goals.

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