The topic of mental health has become a growing topic of discussion over the past few years. Increased awareness through tools like social media, has led to the general public being more educated on the subject. However, despite the strides being made in this area, many continue to believe that they can control their discontent by ignoring it, or focusing on the positives, and counting their blessings. While all of these can certainly have an impact on one’s mental state, it can also have an inverse effect, wherein it hinders one’s ability to process emotions and feel better again. This happens when positive thinking crosses the very fine line between finding happiness and forcing it, thereby entering the territory of toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity refers to a sort of cult of positivity founded on the idea that happiness is the only way to live life. This is done by focusing only on the positives and disregarding anything and everything that causes negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Toxic positivity has been a part of mainstream culture for decades and has recently found itself in the form of New Age spirituality, which promotes a state of perpetual positivity by means of ignoring everything that causes discontent. This forms the basis of a very popular law in the community, called the Law of Attraction.
New Age Spirituality and the Law of Attraction
The New Age movement finds its origins in the Flower Power era of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States and Great Britain. The movement is defined by a professor of American religious history at Baylor University, J. Gordon Melton, as one that “looked forward to the ‘New Age’ of love and light and offered a foretaste of the coming era through personal transformation and healing.”
The movement was largely influenced by eastern thought such as those of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies and has a strong tie to astrology. Though it originated in a very peculiar socio-political environment specific to the West, its basic principles of positivity and healing are still seen today in spiritual circles, primarily those in the United States.
One significant belief of this spirituality is the Law of Attraction (LOA), which deals with things such as manifestation. The basis of this law is the idea that like attracts like, which is to say that what one is manifesting into their lives (be it intentional or unintentional) has to do with the vibrational frequency and the nature of one’s thoughts. The idea behind this is that everything exists on a hierarchy of vibrations, with ‘good’ things having high vibrations and ‘bad’ things having low vibrations; therefore, in order to manifest something, one must be on the same vibrational frequency as the thing they wish to manifest.
New Age spiritual content creators have been rising in popularity of late on platforms such as TikTok and YouTube, teaching their viewers how to manifest their desires through various techniques. In these videos, not only do they share various methods of manifesting, but they also stress the importance of having high vibrations. Additionally, they also offer advice on how to raise your vibrations, which includes things like showing gratitude, having an abundance mindset (believing that you already have everything you want), and activities such as dancing, singing, exercising, going out on nature walks etc. It is this emphasis on high vibrations— and the pressure placed on raising one’s vibrations— that will be discussed and dissected in this article as, though it is not entirely false, it can be a harmful message for those who are not in the healthiest mental space (so-called “low” vibrational state of mind).
Where Spirituality Meets Toxic Positivity
The first problem lies in the labelling of various activities and emotions as either high or low vibrational. In doing so, a value judgement is being placed on our various emotions, with happiness being of a high vibration and stress and sadness being of a low vibration.
It is important to note here that the point of this article is not to judge the validity of these claims or the Law of Attraction itself, but rather to point out the problem with such a mode of judgement. While I am not trying to argue for or against the supposed high/low vibrations of such emotions, the point worth noting here is that in placing these emotions on such a scale, what happens is the further antagonism of these so-called “low vibrational feelings” which include everything from boredom to depression.
This highlights a very important part of toxic positivity: the idea that there is something wrong with not being happy. This is not to say, however, that happiness is undesirable, but rather that the approach to dealing with sadness as a “negative” or an “unnecessary” emotion is often a significant part of this culture of constantly being positive.
In a world where emotions such as sadness, unfulfillment, and apathy are already seen as being negative, the labelling of them as “low vibrational” adds to the stigma that surrounds it, thereby further forcing people to keep mum about their feelings. It puts pressure on an individual to look at the glass half full, or focus on the silver lining of a dark cloud— in essence, it places emphasis on focusing on the positives, but more importantly, ignoring the negatives. While positive thinking and the expression of gratitude can greatly impact one’s thoughts and view of life, ignoring the negatives that take up space in one’s mind cannot erase them from existence, which is precisely what warrants this type of positivity the label of “toxic” — after all, nobody chooses to be unhappy.
This highlights yet another major point about this value judgement of emotions, that being the viewing of non-happy emotions as a problem that needs to be dealt with as soon as possible, rather than an end result with a particular origin. Stress and unhappiness can get in the way of our everyday life, often even making it difficult for us to perform basic tasks that we would otherwise do with no problems. Happiness and contentment are most certainly desirable, and they are states that we yearn for when in a slump.
However, when looking at sadness as a “problem” or a “low vibrational emotion” that keeps us from receiving high vibrational gifts from the universe, we completely ignore the fact that this feeling of discontent or worry has an origin. This origin then invokes these emotions in us, which, regardless of how hard we try to push them away or ignore them, will not leave until acknowledged and felt.
As psychoanalyst Hilary Jacobs Hendel pointed out in an article titled “Ignoring Your Emotions Is Bad for Your Health. Here’s What to Do About It,” the best way to deal with these emotions is to feel, and in the process, validate them.
Happiness should not be seen as the ultimate end, but rather yet another emotion in the bevy of emotions that each and every one of us is bound to experience in the course of our lives. Just as we validate happiness, the same must be done with less pleasant emotions, in order to remind ourselves that the way we feel is completely natural, thereby taking away the pressure and any/all inherent shame we might feel for experiencing them.
Using one of her patients as an example, Hendel noted the importance of not only feeling these emotions but also expressing them in healthy ways, in order to let them out of our system. In addition to this, she also suggests practising self-compassion, which again ties into the validation aspect. This cannot happen if we place judgements on these emotions with labels such as “negative” or “low vibrational,” as this leaves very little room for us to be kinder to ourselves when handling situations of this nature, due to the stigma these labels create.
Apart from further stigmatizing discontent, the Law of Attraction also promotes a culture of blaming those who are upset for their own shortcomings. According to LOA, the universe puts you in circumstances of vibrational frequencies that align with those that you are currently projecting— like attracts like. Therefore, if one is in a low vibration state of mind (unhappy, stressed, etc.), and following a low vibration lifestyle, they will continue attracting negativity into their lives.
This claim then invites the factor of assigning blame— more specifically, through the idea that we are responsible for all our shortcomings. Apart from the most obvious problem with this being the implication that our natural response to distressing situations only invites more of that energy into our lives, it also suggests that we have the power to make everything in life work for us if we try hard enough. While this is not entirely false, this claim completely ignores the fact that in order for on to tap into their power of controlling the things they attract into their life, they must be in a position where they have the ability to do that in the first place— in order to attract things of high vibrations, we must be in a high vibration ourselves, which includes a positive mindset and a healthy lifestyle.
Both these things are near impossible to achieve for those in tough situations, or for those who struggle with mental illnesses such as anxiety and/or depression. When one is in such a state, the most mundane tasks can be incredibly taxing, thereby leading to stagnancy. Similarly, one is also encouraged to engage in activities that bring joy as a means of raising their vibrations, but this too can be a challenge when things like anxiety and depression make these activities unenjoyable.
To some extent, therefore, the ability to raise one’s vibrations is a privilege enjoyed by those who are already in a mentally secure enough place to be able to find joy and excitement in various activities. The fact of the matter is, not everyone is in such a position, thereby making life much more difficult. The LOA hence promotes the assigning of blame on those in such situations for their shortcomings (tough unwittingly), simply because they were not of the capacity to “raise their vibrations.”
In conclusion, the key to bettering one’s mental state is kindness, compassion, acceptance, patience, and most importantly, realizing that it is okay to not be okay. Sadness, happiness, stress, pleasure, and anxiety are all part of the mosaic that is the human experience. Every emotion we feel has an origin, purpose, and end result, and all of this is part of a very natural process of reacting to one’s circumstances.
Though these feelings are undesirable and oftentimes very inconvenient and painful to deal with, it is important to go easy on ourselves and realize that what we are experiencing is meant to happen, and it is a feeling that must run its course in order to leave us with clarity and contentment. Likewise, if you know someone who is experiencing something along these lines, be it a slump or a depressive episode, the most important thing to do in order to care for them is to validate their emotions, rid yourself of any and all judgements you may have with respect to the way they feel or the circumstances that caused it, and provide them with a safe space to vent where they will not be judged or shamed, for they are in a very tricky position.
Nobody chooses to be unhappy, and focusing only on the positives will not rid you of the negatives. If you are currently discontent, anxious, or depressed, know that it is a natural feeling and not one that you are responsible for, or that you have complete control over. Similarly, if you know someone who is struggling mentally, avoid putting pressure on them to do things that make them happy, or remind them of all the things they have to be grateful for. Realize instead that they— like most people— would choose to be happy if that were a choice, but unfortunately, emotions are not presented to us as a set of choices, but rather a circumstance that we, in a sense, forced into. The best way to help someone in such a mental state is to listen to them and validate their emotions; provide a safe space for them to openly talk about what is bothering them without being judged or told that they should not feel that way. What a person needs in such a circumstance is kindness, compassion and understanding, both from themselves and the people around them.
Written by Kalyani Nandagopal for MTTN
Featured Image from Conscious Media Network: Headsaflame
Sources: Britannica, Time
Image Sources: Luna’s Grimoire, Rose Consulting Services, Inventiva