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Sarah Nagaty in Lisbon: Why toxic positivity will not help us cope with the pandemic

As an Egyptian living in Portugal, I am closely following the situation in two different countries on two different continents. My social media is full of posts, news, memes and articles in Arabic, English and Portuguese expressing different attitudes to the crisis. I am not talking about how every country is dealing with the situation, but rather the attitudes of individuals.

Observing how people react on the personal level to the pandemic in Egypt in comparison with the reactions of my friends and acquaintances in Europe felt like being constantly subjected to cold and hot showers back-to-back. It took awhile to find out why it felt different to get exposed to both European and non-European social media content, private conversations, and articles. It is something which I have always noticed and briefly referred to in my article about loneliness and expat life. However, the pandemic allowed me to put my finger on what it is exactly.

The fallacy of ‘positive thinking’

It was this “positive thinking” trend which I encountered nowhere except among Western, young middle-class people. And let’s face it – it is young, Western, middle-class people whose voices are the most influential on the Internet.

My crowd is full of European expats, so I am not talking strictly about Portugal. I first noticed the sentiment in real-life encounters before noticing it virtually.

As a student coming from the Middle East, it was natural for me to share negative emotions with colleagues and friends: anxiety over financial situation, fear of health complications or even something as simple as stress over a deadline. I felt other people’s discomfort when I expressed those emotions. It did not take me a long time to discover that it is not personal.

They turned out to be uncomfortable with their own negative emotions.

Toxic positivity places emphasis on having and/or expressing exclusively positive emotions and avoiding any negative emotions as the “right” way to live. This toxic positivity managed to reach new levels with the breakout of the pandemic.

The crisis unmasked many economic, social and political frailties, among those the fallacy of toxic positivity. We were, and still are, bombarded with posts by influencers, social media users, self-help writers and personal acquaintances and friends telling us how Shakespeare wrote this or that play in quarantine, urging us to come up with something as brilliant during our confinement. Added to that, we have the study guru friends, the yoga guru colleagues, the intermittent fasting guru neighbors, and they all make a point of telling others how to survive in a crisis.

The pandemic came to expose two trends that were borne out of modernity and flourished under capitalism:

• obsession with the productive body

• toxic positivity

Toxic positivity goes judgmental

I read articles about people losing their jobs, but they started growing herbs and doing yoga! Or I go to have a conversation with a friend, and I share with her how stressed I am and then she tells me how the quarantine is a great opportunity to do “stuff.” Another friend told me to think of those who are having it worse than I am because they have lost their jobs in the crisis. And while this sentence carries the best intentions, it lacks compassion. Even if you still have your job and all your family members are healthy, it is okay to express anxiety over an extremely extreme situation.

The harm toxic positivity causes is that it eventually makes people feel worse about themselves due to the accumulating sense of shame of one’s shortcoming or defects. As a matter of fact, sometimes toxic positivity leads us to perceive things as “defects” when they are only normal such as spending few days doing nothing because you are stressed or exhausted.

There is nothing wrong with leading a particular lifestyle which is healthy or Zen or positive. What is toxic about it is when it becomes a premise for judging others because they are not leading the “right” lifestyle. There has always been a “right” lifestyle somewhere and people compete over who is getting it more “right” than others. Now, when the whole planet is literally in crisis, this “right” lifestyle becomes a way to impose even more pressure on people when they are collectively undergoing a trauma.

Obsessing about staying productive

There is not only contempt towards sharing anxiety over one’s life and future, but there is also pressure to be “productive.” And this is the second trend which the pandemic exposed: the obsession with the productive body.

In a capitalist context, our bodies are our most important assets. Hence, the extreme pressure on what we eat, what is the best kind of exercise to do, and how to sleep less, etc. The obsession does not only pertain to the healthy, able body, but it is also about the productive body that can live up to its life goals as well as the preset expectations of society: the workaholic body, the 12-hours-studying-body, the “I have not wasted a minute of my day” body.

Thus, an increasing sense of guilt is felt when the body is not as productive or when it is not making the “right” lifestyle choices. The same way our productivity at work is being constantly evaluated, this also extends to other social and cultural aspects of life where the value of our bodies is derived from their capacity to be productive: always learning a new skill even if suffering from a mental illness, always exercising even when feeling depressed or anxious.

And yes … positive thinking might help those who lost their jobs or homes during the pandemic stay strong. It may also help the more privileged among us who are still on full wages to put up with a severe disruption of normality in our lives. However, positive thinking makes our lives worse if it becomes an act of denial of our negative feelings or a way to patronize others.

Thus, a statement like “I lost my jobs and my apartment, but I learned to grow herbs in the quarantine” is a sad statement about very sad herbs. That person probably needs to freak out. And people need to accept the “freaking out.”

What makes this positive spin even more dangerous is it makes us think that our problems are all about mental attitude and that all solutions lie in changing that mental attitude which shifts our attention away from real class, racial and gender inequalities in life.

These inequalities would objectively make life difficult for many. It becomes a way for privileged, middle class young people to avoid addressing real struggles. This does not only compromise the suffering of truly underprivileged groups in society whose problems are not just about the mental attitude, but it also hurts the practitioners of this toxic positivity immensely. They put extreme mental pressure on themselves to stay positive and productive even when it is not possible.

This is an exceptional time, rather quite a difficult time. If all you can do at the moment is not to lose your mind, you are a hero. If all you can do now is for you and your beloved ones to stay safe, you are doing a great job. And if you find it in you to share your deepest worries and fears, then be proud of yourself.

It takes real strength to admit vulnerabilities. It takes a strong person to not feel vulnerable with their vulnerabilities.

About the author:

Sarah Nagaty is a PhD researcher of cultural studies in Lisbon. She’s lived in Portugal for two years.

As a student of cultural studies, Sarah is drawn to what connects people from different backgrounds to new cultures and places, how they relate to their new surroundings and what kind of activities they could engage with in their new hometowns.

See all of Sarah’s Dispatches posts here.

See Dispatches’s Lisbon story archive here.

Website | + posts

Sarah Nagaty has a PhD in cultural studies, She’s lived in Portugal for six years.

As a student of cultural studies, Sarah is drawn to what connects people from different backgrounds to new cultures and places, how they relate to their new surroundings and what kind of activities they could engage with in their new hometowns.

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