a picture of two coins in a hand, used to symbolize toxic positivity

Jekyll and Hyde: Toxic Positivity and Life in Quarantine

Talking with my good friend Hannah the other day, we realized that we reminded ourselves of the villain/anti-hero of Stevenson’s classic novella “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” swinging from light to dark and back again, over the course of the pandemic.

I think the comparison is a useful one, so if you’d like a brief brush-up on the plot:

In the story, the mostly-good doctor represses ‘evil urges’ within himself for years, eventually creating a serum in an attempt to separate this evil part of his being from his otherwise amiable personality. In doing so, Mr. Hyde is created, a physically transfigured Jekyll who is fueled by anger, selfishness, and vice.

Though Jekyll can control the transformations at the start, he soon finds himself becoming the heinous Hyde unpredictably, which precipitates a murder. As his ability to manipulate the transformations deteriorates, Jekyll ultimately decides to end his life rather than allow Hyde to run amok.

– My brain

Like the allegorical Dr. Jekyll, it’s tempting to pretend that everything is just peachy, ignoring the unsavory parts of our experiences in hopes they’ll simply go away.

I’ve certainly done this.

When you’ve cultivated a persona of positivity, it’s antithetical to let the negative side of things show. If you’re “good vibes only” then how can you admit to having real trouble in pretend-paradise?

This is toxic positivity, and it helps nobody.

Toxic Positivity

If you’d like a definition, here’s one from the article I just linked to:

“The phrase toxic positivity is the culture of portraying yourself as being happy no matter what. You’re basically switched off to anything which might be viewed as negative. It’s also the idea of encouraging people to always see the bright side, and not open up about anything bad.”

Haley Soen of ‘The Tab’

As mentioned above, I’ve been guilty of this.

My post at the beginning of March about the opportunities that Coronavirus and quarantine present was certainly well-intentioned. I still stand by what I said there, but by only casting things in a positive light I fear I invalidated some of the very real and reasonable negative consequences of this pandemic.

I’m also prone to only posting things on social media (which I recently took a break from) when I’m in a good mood or feel like I’m ready to share things with the world. In effect, I self-filter the bouts of frustration and ennui out so that my friends and followers won’t see them. I’d hazard a guess that I’m not alone in this tendency.

Unfortunately, this misses the forest for the trees; a litany of positive content gives the passive impression that no negatives exist. While I may want each individual post to be a highlight or elicit good feelings, the sum is unbelievably rosy. I’m using ‘unbelievably’ with a literal connotation here.

I think the truth is that, like the proverbially two-sided coin, the positive and negative aspects of this pandemic go hand-in-hand. You don’t get one without the other, and to ignore one is to limit your appreciation for the other.

Both sides of the coin are real, and, to extend the metaphor, the coin is only valuable while both sides are present.

A gif of a spinning coin, to represent that both sides of the coin are important, not just the light side that toxic positivity emphasizes.

My Personal Jekyll and Hydes

Quarantine is at the same time:

  • An opportunity and a massive loss of opportunity
  • Fascinating and repulsive
  • Motivating and terribly demoralizing
  • Hopeful and hopeless
  • Bringing us closer to people and pushing us away
  • Et cetera

At the extremes, I’m lying to myself. In the middle, I have to hold two opposing beliefs in balance, a difficult task. We crave certainty or at least categorization, but life offers none here.

The small child within me is frustrated, confused, and sometimes downright acidic about quarantine. The scientist within me is fascinated by the opportunity to see what happens when the test subject (myself) is deprived of all of his usual inputs. Sometimes I’m wonderfully productive, acing my to-do list, and sometimes I rarely get out of my room, playing the same guitar riffs over and over and eating mostly cereal. Jekyll and Hyde continue their tug-of-war.

I don’t know that there is a moral to this post, other than to say that we all have Jekyll and Hyde within us, and that’s just fine. We can try to influence which one comes out more regularly (and I think that’s quite worthwhile to do) but to deny the existence of the dark is to rob the light of it’s meaning. I probably stole that off a bumper sticker.

Only putting out positivity can be a corrosive act in and of itself.

I’m trying to get better about this. What are you working on?

2 thoughts on “Jekyll and Hyde: Toxic Positivity and Life in Quarantine”

  1. Love it!
    Can definitely find myself in your words. I started to be aware of this imbalance of being super productive and just a sorry ass couch potato a couple of weeks ago, but realized that I shouldn’t be too harsh on myself in these abnormal times and be glad I can continue with my job and I’m able to pursue other interests.
    This restored the balance again and it seems the extremes range, in which I was bouncing, is narrower for some time.

    I’m not as positive now about the lockdown, but I can take another quarantine month with this mindset.

  2. Elizabeth Wanninger

    I found your perspective on presenting an overwhelmingly positive persona to be very thought-provoking. As a more introverted person who long ago realized my own inability to maintain such a persona, I appreciate your acknowledgement that the positivity doesn’t always match reality.

    Seems to me the pandemic has challenged how important productivity really is, in a way that may ultimately be beneficial to us all. In your post about coronavirus opportunities, many seemed very productivity-focused. While there’s certainly value to trying to grow in those ways during this time, I think there is also an opportunity to learn how to just be.

    Who are you at the end of the day, without direct access to the outside world, without all its stimuli and your ability to act on it? What beliefs and values have you accumulated over the years, and do they still reflect who you want to be? As much as there is a benefit in crossing another item off your to-do list, I think it’s also worth hitting the pause button to spend some time in solitude playing the same guitar riff of repeat, spending some time in your internal world while so much of the external world is off limits.

    It can be challenging to maintain a mental grasp on the connectedness of the dialectics highlighted by our current times- internal and external, joy and sadness, light and dark. Many of us have the extra time to sit with these seemingly opposing pairs. Might as well take some time to become more at peace with where we’re at mentally and maybe figure out where the right balance is for us on the spectrum between these extremes.

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