I have been trying to find the right words for this post for 5 months, and I hope that I do it justice.
I want to open by saying that I am extremely grateful for my support system. I have a lot of people that care about me and want to help me through my grief.
I do not want to appear unappreciative of the support that I have been given. I do not want to offend anyone that has offered me advice.
But I think it’s important to acknowledge that we all need to beware of toxic positivity when we are trying to help each other through difficult situations.
What is Toxic Positivity?
“…the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.” –The Psychology Group
“It’s not that being cheerful is a bad thing. A positive attitude can be a gift to those around you, said Jamie Long, a clinical psychologist in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but it shouldn’t take the place of listening thoughtfully to others’ experiences.” –CNN article
“One form of Toxic Positivity is when people say “let’s keep it positive” in order to shame or silence those with legitimate criticisms or concerns. Sometimes ‘good vibes only’ means ‘good vibes or else.'” –Jon-Stephen Stansel via Twitter (@jsstansel)
Signs of Toxic Positivity
From The Psychology Group:
- Hiding/Masking your true feelings
- Trying to “just get on with it” by stuffing/dismissing an emotion(s)
- Feeling guilty for feeling what you feel
- Minimizing other people’s experiences with “feel good” quotes or statements
- Trying to give someone perspective (e.g., “it could be worse”) instead of validating their emotional experience
- Shaming or chastising others for expressing frustration or anything other than positivity
- Brushing off things that are bothering you with a “It is what it is”
Why Should I Beware of Toxic Positivity?
When you push toxic positivity on other people, it hurts them by making them feel guilty for what they feel, making them regret sharing that information with you, and/or making them feel like they should just repress their emotions. The same is true when you force yourself to think positively all the time.
“Trying to push away those feelings doesn’t make them disappear. “When you keep that sadness, or shame, or guilt or anger in the body, what happens is it doesn’t go anywhere,” Long said.
Since ignoring difficult thoughts doesn’t work, Long said it’s best to just let ourselves experience the bumps in the road. In the end, it can make it easier to move on to other feelings.” –CNN article
“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that… You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.” -Louise Erdrich
“Listening should not be a corrective function.” –Jeff Brown, Hearticulations
How Can I Be Positive Without Being Toxically Positive?
It’s important to find balance. Personally, I struggle with being too negative, or ignoring my feelings and bottling things up. (Or not knowing how to process them if I don’t have access to my regular self-care tools.)
So my recommendations for something that we can all work on together to minimize the amount of toxic positivity in our lives are as follows.
- Feel what you feel, and allow others to do the same. If you’re mad, be mad. If you’re sad, be sad. If you’re worried about something, that’s OK too. You won’t stay that way forever if you allow yourself to name the emotions and begin to process them. But those feelings will stay with you longer the longer they sit with you.
- Listen to people when they express their feelings to you. Most of the time, we are looking for a listening ear, someone to acknowledge our feelings and agree that what we are feeling is valid. A simple “yes, that sucks!” goes a long way.
- Look silver linings in situations, but acknowledge the bad stuff too. I will admit, I often find myself reaching for any semblance of a silver lining this year. I spent a lot of time finding gratitude around Thanksgiving. But I also spend a lot of time thinking and writing about grief and depression, because that’s my reality right now. I know that reading things like that worries people, but I need to be able to talk about this openly to be able to heal through it.
As I close this post, my hope is that we can all start acknowledging toxic positivity for what it is, and take the opportunity to start living and sharing our feelings more authentically and realistically than what we might be doing now.