The Toxicity of Positivity
I graduated from Texas A&M with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, and now I am pursuing a master's degree in chemical engineering. My entire college experience has been saturated by struggling with or being immersed in toxic positivity, this delusional and baseless optimism that we can balance it all, even when our minds and bodies are telling us we cannot.
Engineers tend to lack awareness of their own limitations when it comes to managing a healthy work life-school balance. We are the Rosie the Riveters of campus, flexing our muscles and shouting, “WE CAN DO IT!” even as our lives are imploding around us. Yes, we may be making A’s and doing phenomenal research and earning good salaries but at what cost? Our sleep? Our social life? Our health? And it’s not just the engineers. Many students at Texas A&M strive to be scholastically successful all the while battling with mental or physical health issues brought on by unrealistic expectations.
So, what do I mean by toxic positivity? I mean not giving stress, anxiety, and depression their due acknowledgement. We take these feelings as detriments to ignore rather than warning signs to be heeded. Too often do we push back these creeping feelings by assuring ourselves it will all get better after that project, after that all-nighter, after that exam, or after that set of experiments, when in reality, the calm after that storm doesn’t come unless we make it.
Case in point, one of my closest friends has a healthy work-life balance. She does her work, overtime if needed, and then she goes home and reads, journals, draws, or hangs out with her friends to relax and detox from a long day. Every time we talk, she asks how busy I am, to which I respond that I frequently work overtime while taking multiple graduate school classes and occasionally writing a blog post, but it doesn’t stress me out because I know if I just sit until the work is done, I will get it all done. Losing sleep or personal time or friend activities doesn’t bother me as long as my school and my work and my blog get done first. Her response to this is always, “Is that sustainable?” And for me, it always was... until recently.
This semester has been one endless succession of stress. At my job, I have been working an insane amount of overtime to hit our project deliverables with my spending some entire weekends in the office. On top of this, I have a crazy amount of schoolwork to do with two homework assignments a week, each taking anywhere from 20-40 hours to complete. Rather than telling my boss I couldn’t healthily juggle everything out of fear of disappointing him, I just kept working and working and working. I averaged 4-5 hours of sleep a night and stopped taking lunch breaks just so I could work on homework while I was at my job.
At first, I told myself it would be okay if I could just hit the work deliverables. Then it was the homework assignments, then it was the exams, and this cycle continued for four weeks with no breaks. My toxic positivity would not allow me to tell anyone that I couldn’t do it all, so my body decided to do it for me.
The nausea kicked in one day and never relented, and eventually I was unable to keep down anything I ate or drank, and even then, I kept saying I would go to the doctor when everything was done because I simply did not have the time for an appointment. Ultimately, I became so dehydrated and malnourished that I had no choice but to go to the ER. Two emergency room visits and a gastroenterologist later, I learned that I have stress-induced gastritis, a stomach ulcer, and duodenal inflammation that led to a total blockage of my small intestine. The key words? Stress-induced.
Health is not an option, whether it be mental or physical. Just because we can push to meet deadlines or struggle to improve our resumes, it does not mean we should. Anxiety is a warning sign. Stress is a warning sign. We do not have to be in school our whole lives, but we do have to live with our mental and physical health. We need to stop telling ourselves we can do everything when our minds and bodies are very clearly telling us we cannot. It is okay to be stressed and anxious, and it is okay to need time to heal from that. It is not okay to ignore the warning signs and fall into a cycle of toxic positivity.
May we all learn our limits and know when it is time to rest, recoup, or retreat.