Taking Care of Yourself

How we can channel toxic positivity into actual positive behaviors.

Photo by Dorrell Tibbs on Unsplash

I think much has been said regarding toxic positivity when it comes to mental health. Online culture has been shifting in the past couple of years and it seems that today’s mindset is: Enough with self-deprecating humor and encouraging people to not even accomplish the bare minimum for their own health, both physical and mental.

Much like a parent raising a child, we sometimes reach a point in which we have to force ourselves to perform basic tasks such as: brushing your teeth, eating properly, submitting overdue paperwork, and so on.

While I can’t agree enough with this sentiment that has been changing the mental health landscape online, a small, perhaps bitter part of myself wants to fight back. How can you fault a mentally ill person for indulging in this humor and behavior when many of us found solace in knowing we weren’t alone?

Many of us grew up with empty advice such as “Just do yoga” or “Stand in front of the mirror and smile.” Today, at 28, I can finally understand the well-intentioned meaning behind these kinds of tips, but when our mind can’t process positivity, these off-hand remarks feel more like a harsh grinding on our hearts.

If it were as simple as smiling, why isn’t it working then? What am I doing wrong? Am I broken?

While I’ve had, and still have, a wonderful support network in my friends and family, some of their advice and comfort fell flat in my ears.

“One day you’ll look back on this and laugh”

Perhaps, but I’m suffering now. I’m crying now. And isn’t this just another way to invalidate my feelings, simply because a future me might laugh at this? (Spoiler alert: I don’t ever recall those memories and laugh. I cringe and pity my past self.)

“All you have to do is smile.”

Once one of my best friends said the above and then proceeded to hold me in a near professional wrestling hold with one arm, and tickle me with the other until I gave in and laughed. This, needless to say, wasn’t helpful for two reasons: 1) I felt that by laughing I was losing the battle of my cry for help. See, you’re laughing! It can’t be that bad then! And 2) all of my willpower in that moment went into not breaking free, but in trying to restrain myself from actually hurting her. My arms were positioned in such a way that it would’ve been easy to knock back one of my elbows and hit her square in her face. Had I done so, I would’ve broken something. Like a mantra, I kept thinking over and over “Don’t fight back” if only because I didn’t want to break my best friend’s nose.

“Cry the day your child dies”

Oof. One of the worst pieces of advice my mother received when she broke up with my dad after a 6-year relationship before they eventually married. A cousin of hers said this wonderfully comforting phrase to her in an effort to keep her from crying. Even I recoil with pain whenever she tells this story. How does the hypothetical death of your future child even remotely comfort you when your boyfriend, the potential father of said children, isn’t in a relationship with you anymore?

So how do we take all this advice, said in the moment with the best intentions, and apply it to our depressed, anxious minds?

Just smile — Don’t just stand in front of the mirror, awkwardly gazing at your sad reflection attempting to pull the corner of your lips. Find a reason to smile. Whenever I feel anxious or weighed down with depression, I play my favorite videos or Vine compilations. I pop in a Studio Ghibli film or read through my “Sad Days” folder, hoping that at least one joke will help me crack a smile. And even then, don’t force the smile if you just can’t. One of the worst parts of my depression is when I can’t cry, when I can’t let it out and it just builds and builds and builds. Cry with your friend, cry with your mom, with anyone you trust and will understand you. In very very desperate moments, I’ll pop The Land Before Time and go to town.

Just do yoga — Create a simple exercise routine, if only to get your body moving. Try some stretches in the morning, a short walk in the evening. I try to consistently play with my dogs in our backyard and soak in some sunlight (with sunscreen, of course). On bad days, I’ll trick myself and purposely leave things in other rooms to force myself to stand up and get them. In pre-pandemic days, I would tell my sister if she wanted to go for a drive to the supermarket, a perfect excuse to leave the house and take a walk from the car to the cookie aisle and back.

Just think of the day your child dies — Just no. There’s so much to deal with in the world to add the anxiety of a hypothetical scenario into the mix.

Psychologically speaking, I think we all tend to find coping mechanisms in destructive behavior because, after spending so much time and effort struggling to get by in day-to-day life with the people closest to you berating you for not doing better, it’s only natural that we’ll listen to a stranger online encouraging you to skip a reunion with friends, skip a class, or even skip a meal.

Remember that no one is alone, that there’s hundreds if not thousands of people in the same boat, trying to remain sane with each passing day, and words of encouragement, though sometimes lackluster, are there to push ourselves to feel better. It’s okay to accept when something is wrong, but the next step is to help yourself on your feet in whichever way you find best.

Mika is a Mexican writer and translator, pretender, pet-lover, and a mess at 1 in the morning.

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