Friday, September 29, 2023

Toxic Positivity as a Freelance Writer

Recently I've been reading a book called Toxic Positivity.  I was curious about the book when it popped up on my library's recommended titles.  I'm generally a pretty positive person, so I wanted to know what made positivity toxic.

The answer boils down to when positivity is forced and, often as a result, crowds out other perfectly healthy emotions.  It's when positivity becomes so forced that it devolves into platitudes and other inherently unhelpful impulses.  And once I started reading the book, I realized I know exactly what the author means.  This level of forced positivity is toxic.

Then there was also the discussion of when your forced positivity doesn't extend to your true feelings, leaving you feeling like a failure.  My interpretation is that there's a level of dissonance in people who try to force themselves to be positive even when they don't feel it, and end up feeling worse because they know they're not achieving what they think they're supposed to.

But why am I blogging about this on a blog about freelance writing?

The author, Whitney Goodman, also touches on how toxic positivity impacts the workplace.  In her book, she discusses an overworked employee who is silenced and shamed for daring to complain about the work environment.  The book discusses toxic positivity in the workplace: bright colors, foos ball, common areas, holiday parties.  These things are designed to force a feeling of fun and camaraderie in the office, but in this employee's experience, just disguised the toxicity of the office and made it so that anyone complaining could be shamed for being negative in such a positive environment.

That's one reason I bring it up.  But it's not a direct comparison to freelancing, since we typically work from home and with a fair amount of independence.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized we're still susceptible to this idea of toxic positivity, from both inside and outside sources.

  1. The toxic client.  Most of us have probably encountered clients who present themselves as the perfect client to write for, the dream opportunity... but then you find out you're expected to be on call 24/7, put up with unreasonable expectations and nitpicky critiques of your work, etc.  If you try to enforce your boundaries as a freelancer, you're silenced much as the employee in the book was, because how could you ever complain about such a fabulous gig?

  2. Toxic positivity in presentation.  Another thing Goodman talks about is the wild chasm between how we present our lives on social media, and how we actually feel.  Social media is evidence of toxic positivity when we always pretend everything is perfect, even when it's most definitely not.  I think we as writers are horribly guilty of this, as we feel like we have to always present our freelance status as a perfect existence in order to combat society's skepticism.  So when people ask us about what we do, we talk up the flexibility and the independence, and conveniently leave out anything about how hard freelancing can be.

  3. Internalized toxic positivity.  When it comes down to it, it's all in our head, but unfortunately freelance writers spend a lot of time in our heads.  We tell ourselves freelancing is a dream job even though we're working long hours to market ourselves and continually look for more work, still meet our deadlines, and generate enough in income.  We're impossibly hard on ourselves and always view our accomplishments as not being enough.  "Believe you can do it and it'll happen!" is the message, no matter how unrealistic the goal is.  And we pretend our job has this amazing advantage of flexibility even though in reality that means working all hours.  In short, we are both the boss and the employee in the scenario in the book: overworked and telling ourselves how dare we complain when we have the good fortune to work for ourselves.
I'm not yet finished with Toxic Positivity, but I'm looking forward to seeing if there's more that appears to be relevant to freelancing, and what solutions the book proposes (because it does discuss ways to reframe so that you're not constantly undermining yourself and others with forced positivity).  I'll post again if I find anything else that bears passing on.  In the meantime: Remember, we may love freelancing, but we don't have to sell it as being perfect all the time.  No job is perfect all the time, and freelancing doesn't need to be either in order to justify our decision to pursue this life.

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