mental health

‘Toxic positivity’ is out: Welcome to the new world of indulgent pettiness

Marina Deller, The Conversation

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‘Toxic positivity’ is out: Welcome to the new world of indulgent pettiness
Research suggests happy people can be complainers, as long as they have a good grasp of mindfulness and know when to stop

Call them pet peeves, call them petty grievances, one thing is certain – complaining about everyday irritations feels cathartic. It’s also the premise of American comedy podcast I’ve Had It.

Hosts Jennifer Welch and Angie “Pumps” Sullivan state, tongue in cheek, that their goal is to compartmentalize complaining and be nicer in their day-to-day life. Their complaints range from pedestrian (cordless vacuums, people who clap when a plane lands, long Instagram captions) to political (the state of the education system). Eyebrow-raising complaints include, simply, “pregnant people.”

Since launching in late 2022, I’ve Had It has topped Apple’s podcast charts, become viral on both TikTok and X several times, and has led the hosts to guest-star on programs such as The Today Show. This podcast’s popularity across platforms signals a cultural shift from “toxic positivity” to indulgent pettiness – but a shift away from positivity into fully embracing complaints is not without risk.

‘Toxic positivity’ is out: Welcome to the new world of indulgent pettiness
Toxic positivity and emotional influencers

As community-minded creatures who want deeply to belong we often mirror others, including on social media, where we adopt phrasing, tone, and expressions of emotion.

In the past few years, social media has had a focus on hyper-positivity (think cheery emojis and motivational quotes plastered over sunsets). Some put this “good vibes only” trend down to the pandemic and a desire to avoid painful feelings when ruminating on difficult realities.

However, attempting to convey constant happiness is not only difficult but impossible. Research suggests prescriptive positivity can make us react poorly to unfavorable emotions and is a “goal that backfires” when people view themselves as a failure for feeling unhappy, struggle to handle their feelings, or actively avoid processing them.

But now toxic positivity has been named and shamed, people are searching for more emotionally nuanced media.

The I’ve Had It hosts are in a new wave of content creators we can consider “emotional influencers,” in this case contributing to a new media landscape where complaining is not only embraced but encouraged.

Curated closeness

By putting our “retaliation” against negative experiences into words, we experience pleasurable emotions. Complaining can feel cathartic, reduce stress, and (like gossiping) help us feel closer to others.

This community aspect of complaining suits podcasting, which fosters intimacy through sharing deeply personal stories “directly into our ear” and “chosen just for you.”

Listening to hosts who feel like our friends, who are friends themselves, having a chat and sharing laughter can make us feel socially fulfilled in a similar way to a video chat or virtual message with a real-life friend.

In I’ve Had It, the hosts and their guests share personal complaints and unfiltered stories in a curated approach for bond-forming. We know, for example, that Jennifer’s husband Josh (a regular guest) has struggled with addiction and that Jennifer has “had it” with family week at his rehab center. We also know Pumps once tried to relieve constipation with a teaspoon.

Executive producer Kiley has become a regular feature, laughing at the hosts’ antics and acting as an audience surrogate. Fans are involved in the show via voice messages, reviews, and as guests themselves.

These elements combine to provide a sense there is potential to become “real life” friends with Jennifer and Pumps: the promotional tagline for their live shows is “make your parasocial friendship real.”

While complaining brings people together, it can also push us apart through ostracization or rejection. Although the goal of I’ve Had It is to compartmentalize pettiness, this may be easier for the hosts than the listeners.

Jennifer and Pumps are two undeniably affluent, well-connected women who have leveraged their privilege to build a platform about complaining. They also amp-up their on-air personas, with Jennifer admitting, “I’m not as cold-hearted as I play on the podcast.”

Just like prescriptive positivity can become “toxic” when it comes at the expense of other emotions, an overemphasis on grievances can breed negativity, or lead to passive-aggressive and indirect communication styles.

Indulging in excessive pettiness can also make us less likeablealienate our loved ones, and worsen our mental health.

Embracing ‘idiocy’

Some commenters are critical of Jennifer and Pumps’ promotion of negativity. The hosts see this as fodder. They read critical reviews, double-down on complaints, and laugh together, cleverly disarming the criticism.

‘Toxic positivity’ is out: Welcome to the new world of indulgent pettiness

Jennifer and Pumps are even more eager to mock those who take issue with their political views. In response to a reviewer accusation that they’re “both a couple of leftist idiots” the pair laugh. Jennifer states, “I could not agree more […] I say thank you, we are leftist, we are idiots.”

Ultimately, I’ve Had It concedes there is a kind of “idiocy” to pettiness, but there is joy and charm too.

Research suggests happy people can be complainers, as long as they have a good grasp of mindfulness and know when to stop.

If you, admittedly like me, enjoy a good bout of complaining now and again, but want to keep your emotions balanced and your relationships intact, there are a few things the experts recommend. It is important to differentiate when you need to enact “expressive complaining” to blow off steam or when you should complain “instrumentally” with a goal in mind. Talk about how something makes you feel, so others can empathize with you. And ask your loved ones’ permission to complain before revving up a rant.

What about those who aren’t keen on complaining at all? Well, as far as the hosts and fans of I’ve Had It are concerned, you need not tune in. And, if you do decide to leave a comment decrying their pettiness, be warned it will make for some great content in the next episode. – The Conversation|

Marina Deller is a Casual Academic, Flinders University.

This piece was originally published in The Conversation.

The Conversation

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