I know that the last thing anyone wants to hear about right now is the pandemic. Regardless of how we are with vaccination rates and ability to keep up with new strains, we’re still sharing a world with coronavirus. I have this irrational dread that a new, vaccine resistant variant will choke slam us to the floor and we’ll be back to where we were in March 2020. Plus, on a purely selfish level, I want to talk about what the pandemic has taught me about productivity and positivity.
Everyone has their own story to tell about their experience with the pandemic and my experience isn’t that interesting, so I’ll keep it as brief as I can. In late February, my mother had a bad feeling that the virus would go worldwide and end the world, so told me to stock up. The thing that scared me most about the virus, and still does, was spreading it and infecting other people. So, upon a slight cough, my boyfriend and I went into isolation two weeks before lockdown started. Expecting the worst, my family advised I should move in with my mum and stepdad in their house in the countryside. For months, our eyes were peeled to live news updates as we watched helplessly as the death tolls rose and the world was falling apart at the seams. Twelve weeks later, when it was relatively safe, I went back home to try and live as normal a life as I could.
I found that keeping busy with something made isolation easier to get through. All I could do to help was stay inside, wash my hands more and steer clear of people. As much as my writing was a lifeline, I also wrote myself into a frenzy until I burned out that summer. I needed to feel ‘productive’. I sacrificed my health and wellbeing in doing so, and yet because I had burned myself out, I didn’t feel I was good enough.
There’s always been this obligation to be ‘productive to prove your worth’ at the expense of your health. And that was never more apparent than during this pandemic. Even during a global pandemic where millions of people are dying, have been put out of work and homes and everyone’s mental health has hit the floor, there is still that voice that has been saying, ‘I’ve got all this free time now, I should use it productively’.
Yes, using the time you have on furlough or off school to do some self-development, learn new things, start a hobby or do charity work is a good thing. It is good to want to make the best of a bad situation. But this also comes with the voice saying, ‘Well, why aren’t you doing all those things? Why have you just slobbed around, ate junk food and watched Netflix for the past month? Start that side hustle, already.’ You’ll have looked at social media where people have posted pictures of everything you should have managed to do effortlessly, and asking you what have YOU done? I’ve seen a few posts that have said that you don’t have any excuse not to have spent your time productively. You’ve got so much time now, they’ll say. Considering people only tend to put out their positive news and most flattering pictures, is it not unfair to expect that of yourself every day?
I will say this out loud: toxic positivity is a plague on the Western world. If you’re afflicted, you may avoid thinking about your problems/negative emotions; hide your true feelings behind motivational quotes or feel-‘goodisms’ that you believe will be more palatable for other people; feel guilty or ashamed for feeling negative emotions and insist that you’ll ‘get over it’. You may inadvertently minimize others negative emotions or shame them for having these feelings out of discomfort. ‘Look on the bright side’, ‘it could be worse’, ‘good vibes only’, ‘just be positive’, ‘you’ll get over it’. Or my personal least favourites: ‘failure is not an option’ and ‘everything happens for a reason’. It is so ingrained into our society, especially now that it’s hard not to accidentally utter these phrases. During the Lockdowns we’ve been stuck with our own and other people’s negative emotions on blast from the comfort of our isolation chambers.
It’s only natural that, at some point, you’re going to fall into this rabbit hole. Nobody likes feeling ‘bad’ emotions like sadness, anxiety, guilt, jealousy, envy, tiredness, failure. The problem with the ‘good vibes only’ mindset is that it encourages you to be a fair-weather friend to yourself at best. It encourages you to demonise the vulnerable, sad self, which does you no favours. That negative voice in your head comes from a place of deep hurt, and the more you leave it in the dark to cry, the louder it will cry and scream obscenities at you. When I talk about my accomplishments and promote my writing, I don’t want people to think that it’s easy for me, and make other people feel inadequate because they don’t have what I seem to have naturally.
That’s why you may have seen me talk a lot about my ‘failures’ on this blog. It’s not because I hate myself. I want to start a conversation. If we can be a bit more open about our negative emotions and seeing their value, it might make our lives a bit easier. I’ve been there. I’ve beat myself up when I don’t succeed or make a mistake. I fall into pits of despair and burnout where I can’t reason my way out, and I need to cry. I can get so anxious I make myself ill. Everyone has struggled with their mental health in some way during this pandemic. If you’ve managed to avoid that through all of this, you are an incredibly resilient person and/or you’re not acknowledging your struggles in order to get through the day, or you have been lucky enough to have been shielded from the worst of this pandemic. All of which are fine. What I’m trying to say is that you’re not alone, even if you feel like you’re the only person in the world feeling like this.
To put things in perspective: you are surviving the biggest crises in recent memory. Millions and millions of people have died of the virus or as a result of economic fallout the virus caused. Millions of people are grieving for lost relatives or friends taken by this virus. Thousands of people lost their jobs, putting them and their families in financial jeopardy. Thousands of people are afflicted with long COVID. Millions of parents have had to raise their children through a terrifying and uncertain part of human history and bring them joy, safety and hope despite it all. 2020 took the crown from 2016 as the worst year from its severed head, and 2021 is limbering up with an axe to take its throne. When you’re in survival mode, feeling cut off from your loved ones and perpetually concerned with your own safety, you’re not exactly going to be thinking about what your workout routine should be or if you managed to keep your Duolingo streak at all. You’re going to be exhausted, is what I’m saying. And I don’t know about you, but this past year or so has been exhausting. I’ve been one of the lucky few who have done quite well despite the circumstances and it’s been difficult even for me. I’m incredibly lucky that I had a strong support network of family and friends who were there for me when I needed them. I could see my close family during this time, which is a privilege a lot of people didn’t have. I didn’t have to worry about missing rent or bills or being able to afford food or heating.
What I’m advocating here is self compassion. If you weren’t able to better yourself or “be productive” during this time, you shouldn’t feel ashamed of that. At the end of the day, you’re surviving. And even without the pandemic, you shouldn’t measure your worth as a human being on how productive you are. This is a lesson that’s difficult to unlearn, considering that’s what we’ve all been taught by society throughout our entire lives. It’s a lesson I’m still trying to internalize. No matter how weak or tired or shaken you feel, you are making it through. I’m proud of you. You will get through this.
Resources I used in researching toxic positivity:
What is Toxic Positivity? Definition and Traits of Toxic Positivity Culture (choosingtherapy.com)
It’s okay to be okay too. Why calling out teachers’ “toxic positivity” may backfire (uwinnipeg.ca)