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Tragic Optimism: an Antidote to Toxic Positivity.

I will begin by introducing myself. My name is Hafsah.

I will abstain from providing a lengthy description of who I am or what others perceive me as being, as I truly feel that who I am is constantly in a state of transition, hence any description I provide after my name will probably change, depending on the circumstances and events which appear in my life.

As it is suicide prevention month, I feel more motivated to share my first thread of writing for Kind to Mind.

I believe that a heightened level of self-awareness, personal growth, and ambition has stemmed from the events of 2020. I no longer want to avoid the darkness or avoid talking about it. Part of processing the difficulties has been in me being more open and humble, and this has enabled me to process these difficult situations.

March 2020- a month that has become etched and imprinted into my psyche forever.

I was in the midst of qualifying as an Optometrist, feeling under the weather due to impending examinations and feeling increasingly anxious about close contact with patients due to an absence of PPE, no vaccination, or a clear enough understanding of the actual pathogenesis of COVID-19.

My younger sister contracted Covid, passed it onto me and there it began the feelings of guilt, shame, and regret as it passed onto my father soon Could we as sisters have done more to protect him from being afflicted? It was 2 am and two worried Paramedics who had witnessed the horrific scenes at intensive care units at hospitals who were well aware of the high mortality rates informed me of his oxygen stats, which were dangerously low. It was either stay at home and as harsh as it sounds ‘die’ or go to hospital and have a chance to live, despite the low survival rates at the time for those with underlying health conditions. It was a time in which no visits were allowed at the hospital, hence the thought of sending the person I love most in this whole world away with no one to provide support emotionally was extremely painful.

A profound lesson I’ve learned through this whole process is that it really is okay to not be okay. It is tragic to comprehend the idea that we have normalized ‘toxic positivity' so much that we are no longer conscious or aware of its impact.

Toxic positivity is an umbrella term to describe the way in which support is given to those who are going through a tragic or devastating situation in life. For example :

‘Don’t worry it could be worse than this ‘

‘Keep smiling, don’t stress about it ‘

‘Stay positive ‘.

‘It will get better, it always does'.

‘Count your blessings’ .

How can we do more to support others and validate their feelings, without sending out words of compassion or sympathy which actually do more harm than good?

To answer this question; I’d like to mention an article I have recently read on the Atlantic by Scott Kaufman.

It stated how the antidote to Toxic Positivity is Tragic Optimism. This term was coined by the existential-humanistic psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.

Although I still value the power of gratitude and the importance of counting your blessings; unfortunately during the pandemic, these words were difficult to comprehend.

Scott Kaufman shared how ‘Refusing to look at life’s darkness and avoiding uncomfortable experiences can be detrimental to mental health’.

Further pointing out that ‘toxic positivity’ is a ‘denial of reality.

It can be quite frustrating or apathetic even to expect others to ‘stay positive’ in the midst of a global pandemic where due to a prominent ripple effect, every single life has been affected.

Supporting words by the gratitude researcher Robert Emmons of UC Davis convey that, “To deny that life has its share of disappointments, frustrations, losses, hurts, setbacks, and sadness would be unrealistic and untenable. Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth.”

This particular Atlantic article further revealed the idea that people can grow from difficult circumstances; becoming more: creative, altruistic, appreciative of life, relationships, display heightened compassion and develop spiritually.

I reflect on this statement and do honestly believe that since last year I have transitioned greatly and my viewpoint and reactions to certain situations have changed completely. Post-traumatic growth researchers have highlighted that sparks of creativity can come out after an emotionally scarring event.

I now find myself being more vocal about mental health, I’ve reconnected with my passion for literature and my connection to the outdoors has also been a stand-out extract.

Therefore, I’d like to finish this post by stating how Tragic Optimism may just be the solution to validating one's experiences in contrast to toxic positivity. It may well be that through these ‘tragic events’ that we find ourselves closer to connecting to our true authentic selves.


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