We often hear the phrase “don’t let the bastards get you down” or my favorite (fictional) version, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” and it’s a good personal policy. Too many bastards are out to make us feel like shit for [insert your reason here]. Bastards deplete our energy. It’s in their job description.
That being said, there’s a misunderstanding of the phrase. Some see not letting the bastards get you down as a chance to ignore or disregard trauma. It’s a form of toxic positivity that keeps us fragmented, picked at, and outside ourselves. It’s like what life was like in Iowa after experiencing a natural disaster during racial injustice and a pandemic. Back in August of 2020, my state had its umpteenth derecho, but it was more widespread and devastating than anything most of us had experienced. People lost old, beloved trees, roofs, cars, food, windows, housing, and some, their lives.
Yet, the myth that is Iowa Nice led too many of us to say, “It could’ve been worse.” If the tree in the yard fell, we were grateful it didn’t fall on the house. If it fell on the house, we were grateful we weren’t in the room when it happened. If we were in the room when it happened, we were grateful we survived. Iowa Nice–as well-intentioned as it always pretends to be–is toxic positivity. We’re taught to be grateful even if all we have is our traumatized selves, to smile even if we’re screaming inside, to say hello to someone on the sidewalk even if that person is being a creep. Doing or saying anything else is complaining, negativity, impolite, & ungrateful, and that’s just not the Midwestern way.
Certainly, there is power in positivity, but it’s OK to say, “Well, this fucking sucks.”
However, this isn’t just an Iowa Nice thing. Toxic positivity is a trait of American culture. It’s no wonder we internalize this shit.
The Truth Is Icky
Take insurrection as a casual example (because apparently, this is a thing we do now). In January 2021, terrorists attacked America and attempted a coup all in the names of racism, entitlement, privilege, and Trump. In the aftermath, public leaders kept stating what those terrorists did was not the true version of America; however, millions of Americans rightfully pointed out this is exactly what America has always been: A country snuggled in the romantic embrace of White supremacy. To say America was anything different was a denial based in privilege. It was pretending everything was OK at the expense of those traumatized. It was, simply, toxic positivity. It’s no wonder so many of us felt exhausted for a week afterward. Not only were we traumatized, but our trauma was minimized by the people who could do something to stop it happening again.
Admitting some shit sucks requires a level of self-awareness, honesty, and authenticity that millions of Americans are not willing to do yet. Facing the truth–be it on a personal or national level–requires emotional strength and vulnerability, something most Americans eschew in favor of unbothered individualism. After all, telling people they “need therapy” is still lobbied as an insult when, in fact, we all need therapy. It’s entrenched in our pop culture even. Damn near every movie or show plot could be resolved with fucking therapy. (Try that some time. Watch something, and look for the way the conflict is set up, and ask, “Could that have been resolved with therapy?” It’s the worst game to play, but hey, it’s better than staring at the wall another few hours during this pandemic.)
When we trade the potential pain of self-honesty for the guaranteed pain of toxic positivity, we perpetuate, maintain, and generate more trauma. Unresolved trauma is the root of most social problems (don’t at me). Basically, toxic positivity represses, denies, and ignores trauma and problems. Ignoring problems can lead to mental health concerns. It can shrink and deplete us. We end up giving away pieces of ourselves to keep the peace.
Proof? I return to the compulsion for political and media leaders to lie to Americans. Denying our entire traumatic history of social injustice, White supremacy, and violence sets the country up for repeats (maybe ad nauseam). Leaders, unfortunately, see themselves as decorative duct-tape (well-dressed temporary solutions), but true leadership does not pretend everything is fine. Pick your own gif for that one.
So, Now What?
By contrast, addressing truths brings the pain of discomfort and growth. I argue it starts with us. The questions become: How has toxic positivity kept you down? How has a culture of toxic positivity kept you from facing the pain of growth? How has American toxic positivity furthered your trauma? What can you do about it?
Three seemingly easy solutions are:
- Find support
- Be honest
- Talk about it
But the details of those things are easier said than done. As the week goes on, I’ll elaborate on each.