Collage Your Way Out of Toxic Positivity by Kalee Jones
Social media sites love a good motivational quote. Often with a few watercolour rainbows and a brushstroke typeface to add some flair. At surface level, motivational quotes can be twee and fairly harmless. A bit of “What if I fall? Oh but darling what if you fly?” here, a dash of “She believed she could so she did” there. For some, these words are the pinch of #mondaymotivation they need (“But first, coffee” of course), and as I cynically side-eye my Instagram feed at the start of my working week, I do my best to remind myself of this.
What I take umbrage with is the more insidious side to the motivational quote. The side that falls into the category of Toxic Positivity. Toxic Positivity is the notion that everything is fine and you should always feel good. Remember when, as a child, a well-meaning relative or teacher would attempt to comfort your tears with the plea of “please don’t cry”? Though the sentiment is heartfelt, the subconscious message that is received is that being sad is bad, words which serve as the toxic positivity national anthem.
A common social media quote that does the rounds in a variety of iterations is Good Vibes Only. Good Vibes Only suggests that your negativity isn’t wanted here. Keep that sadness, disappointment, hurt and anger away from me. I am only cultivating a space for positive emotions. Those feelings are wrong, and you are wrong for feeling that way. It’s become the grown-up version of “please don’t cry”.
The suggestion is that emotions can be divided into “good” and “bad”, rather than seeing how all feelings are valid and are often a healthy response to certain situations. When you think of some recent social injustices in the news, for example, the ongoing case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe or the continuing criminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, feeling angry, saddened and frustrated by these situations can be incredibly powerful emotions that, when channelled into action, can potentially drive reform.
There are also instances when negative feelings exist for no particular reason at all, and cannot be magicked away by thinking positively. For those struggling with a mental health problem which, as is well-documented, will affect 1 in 4 of us throughout our lives, the Good Vibes Only mantra can actually have a detrimental effect on our wellbeing.
In my work as a student support advisor, I have regularly heard young people say that they don't want to burden their friends or family with their mental health difficulties. This feeling of having to present as "strong" and "happy" to those closest to us to avoid becoming either a social pariah amongst a friendship group or the subject of worry within the family can often be a barrier to many of us in need of support. One of the first pieces of advice anyone in need of emotional support will receive is to talk to someone about it. But this vulnerability can be hard to tap into when we've received so many subconscious messages to show up with Good Vibes Only.
Despite my cynicism at the start of this post, I do believe that seeing written reminders of words of wisdom and encouragement can be helpful in re-directing our inner narratives. In my creative work, I have embraced a new style of a motivational quote, one that promotes self-acceptance and validates the whole range of human emotions. Making art featuring phrases such as "Anxiety Lies" is a helpful reminder on the days when I'm consumed by unrelenting panic about my cat being ill (she's absolutely fine, but this is what my anxiety frequently likes to lie about) and seeing the words "Bad Days are OK" stuck on my wall lets me know that there is no permanence to the feelings of sadness I might be experiencing. A thought occurred to me: if I find these sentiments helpful, perhaps others will too.
This thought inspired me to start running workshops, creating a space for others to design their own positive reminders using the medium of collage. Not only is cutting, arranging and sticking shapes onto paper a soothing act in itself, but the end product is a piece of art that serves a purpose. It's still early days for the project, but those that have taken part so far have given the idea glowing feedback, praising the fusion of art with wellbeing.
The workshops have shown me that when it comes to motivational quotes, all vibes matter. The hopeful, the pragmatic, the consolatory. These feelings all come together to make the layered emotional trifles that we are. So when it comes to words of wisdom, why limit yourself to Good Vibes Only?
You can find out more about my workshops by visiting my website: kaleejones.co.uk and instagram @kaleejones_