The end seems to be nigh. Boris Johnson and his gang have wielded the carrot of post-Covid freedom in front of our noses. June 21st is going to be a date in history for more than just the summer solstice from now on. It will – should – mark the beginning of our lives within the much coveted new normal. It’s going to be brilliant … isn’t it? It’s what we have been waiting for ever since the first Lockdown came into force in March last year. So, how are we all feeling? Are we all geared up and ready to be dancing in the streets? Or is that just toxic positivity?

There’s no escape – I can’t wait.

Toxic positivity. Have you heard of it? It’s a relatively new concept which has crept into my world via social media in conversations about bouncing back after the pandemic. Toxic positivity is the faux ‘you got this’ culture which we seem to be finding ourselves in. It’s pretending that all is OK when it is most definitely not. It’s hiding our true emotions about what’s been happening in our lives – Covid or otherwise – and pretending we’ve all got our heads above water when we don’t. Toxic positivity means ignoring our true feelings through fear of showing any signs of struggle when, in reality, we just need a hug – even if it is the virtual kind.

I’m slipping under

I will admit that I am guilty of toxic positivity. During some of the most difficult times over the last few years, I have been loath to admit how hard I found adapting to life as a single parent. I didn’t want anyone to think that maybe I couldn’t do it all on my own or that leaving my son’s dad could be any version of a mistake. So, instead I painted a smile on my face and let everyone think that I was doing just fine. I wasn’t. In fact, I think that the first time I let anyone know the truth was during a quarterly review at work when my standards had been slipping. I think my boss at the time was quite surprised when I just admitted that I was sad and so I couldn’t focus very well. I hadn’t shown that side of myself before – how foolish.

But, we all do that don’t we? We don’t let the struggles we may be facing behind closed doors make it into the public domain. It’s not the done thing is it? The stiff upper lip, the projection of a human who has their shit together and the strong and independent person you think you should be. But maybe you are feeling anything but that.

This also extends to how we treat others too.

Yes, we may be aiming to be supportive, encouraging and maybe even inspiring when we project “good vibes only” to those around us. But, words, and the words which we choose to use, are so very important. Maybe instead of encouraging people to stop crying and to count themselves lucky even when facing dire straits, we should be indulging one another in genuine emotion instead. Talk isn’t cheap. There’s no shame in crying. Telling someone that we love them shouldn’t only happen once in a blue moon. Offering a loved one some tea and sympathy instead of telling them to get over it will help more than we may even realise. Telling someone to cheer up is not the answer.

There’s a scene in the great Disney film Inside Out about this and it’s the role which sadness can and should play in our lives. Sadness isn’t a sign of weakness or failure. It’s just a demonstration of how we are human and therefore capable of a whole spectrum of emotions.

Do you feel me now?

There’s no denying that the last 12 months or so have been incredibly tough. For many – myself included – the last couple of months have been the toughest of the tough. The cold weather, the seemingly never-ending darkness, the home schooling and the lack of personal satisfaction which comes with furlough have meant that 2021 didn’t quite get off to the start which I – and many others – were hoping for.

Still, better days are ahead right?

Yes, they should be. That dangling carrot of June 21st has led to a rapid increase in WhatsApps from friends wanting to make plans for the summer. Many entertainment and events companies are putting their email marketing mailing lists to good use once again. We are all enjoying endless daydreaming that this year will be much more fun than the last.

But even amongst all that, there will be tricky times. We’re all recovering from something so horrific that we won’t all switch modes overnight. The predictions of a parallel pandemic in mental health could be upon us. Toxic positivity doesn’t have a place there. Our wellbeing has taken a bashing and those who thrive on structure and routine have had all of that taken away. Isolation, reduced income or redundancy, bereavement, uncertainty, childcare, the demands on key workers, exam stress – the list of things which could take their toll on our mental health over the last year is almost endless. And the situation has probably just intensified for those who were struggling with their mental wellbeing long before March 2020 too.

Should we just be telling each other that it is what it is and we just get on with it? We’re all lucky to have come out on the other side! Hurrah – see you in the beer garden! Nope, that toxic positivity is dangerous.

And what about the kids? Will people like my five-year-old son TJ switch back to 2019 mode overnight? That’s unlikely. Yes, he has coped amazingly well with all the pandemic has thrown at us, but that’s not just forgotten from one second to the next. We need to be there to support each other too – no matter the age of those around us who may be struggling to get back on their feet. I don’t hide the reality of my feelings from TJ and I hope that he doesn’t with me either – whether it’s in the wake of the pandemic or much further down the line.

Putting your positive pants on

This doesn’t mean that we have to be wholly negative, sad and a bit miserable all of the time though. Quite the opposite, in fact. Life is a gift and we have all come through an absolute shit show recently and we should be welcoming the opportunity to resume life as we know it and hug our mates when we meet them in the pub for that drink after a day in the actual office. Ah, the dream … right?

But, the positivity has to be genuine and not at the expense of how you’re really feeling. I would imagine that quite a lot of us may even find it difficult to get into the swing of the new normal. A UK study has found that Covid has had a huge and negative impact on body image issues. The anxiety and stress caused by the pandemic has been manifesting itself as dissatisfaction about our figures and this could lead to a rise in eating disorders. Our decreased opportunities for physical exercise coupled with increased screen time and its potential negative impact on self-esteem have left a lot of us feeling a bit shit about ourselves.

I know that this has happened to me. Having spent much of 2018 and 2019 regularly going to the gym, I am not looking forward to trying on my pre-Covid wardrobe for the first time in months. Joggers won’t quite cut it in the outside world but my skinny jeans are likely to be more than a little snug too. A few months back into the routine and everything will level out again, probably.

Acceptance is the new normal

So toxic positivity isn’t the answer. Maybe it isn’t about pretending everything is fucking fabulous because Primark is back open every day again – although that is something to look forward to. It also isn’t about feeling negative because we all lost a year of our lives to watching Netflix. It’s about being somewhere in the middle of all that. Like The Killers said, we’re coming out of the cage and we’re doing just fine. Not necessarily great – but fine.

Maybe that will increase in time. Or maybe the euphoria of being able to do what we want and when we want it will diminish once the novelty of it all wears off. Who knows. The best that we can do is own our feelings no matter what they are. We don’t have to proclaim that everything is awesome when it’s not – we’re not in The Lego Movie. Avoiding pain is only going to cause pain further down the line and that’s basically ridiculous.

We’re people and we will experience a wide range of emotions from one moment to the next. Ignoring any of those is not going to feel good. Don’t feel guilty for validating how you feel. Reach out for that virtual hug via a WhatsApp which says “yeah, it’s a bit shit and I’m struggling” until the hugs can be in real life instead.

Toxic positivity can be lethal so let’s all handle each other with genuine care – we may just need it.