Now is a really good time for a discussion about toxic positivity. In general, our culture struggles with this issue – I think in part because we have difficulty processing and expressing our emotions overall. As we start to have conversations about returning to work and school, I’m noticing this concept creeping into conversations regularly so it may be helpful to address this for a moment. So what is toxic positivity?
Basically, toxic positivity focuses on positive emotions, positive discussions and expressions, and positive outcomes while rejecting anything potentially negative or uncomfortable. This is often at the expense of more realistic perspectives and costs genuine emotional connection. Toxic positivity can shut down opportunities to problem solve and make impactful changes, and frequently creates feelings of shame and disappointment in the person who was trying to communicate.
This is precisely why toxic positivity is….well, toxic. It is a disingenuous form of communication which seeks to protect the user from any discomfort and is essentially used to shut down further discussion while making the user feel both superior and comforted. People who engage in toxic positivity usually have difficulty experiencing and expressing their own emotions, often from being shamed in the past as well. They may not realize though that what they are doing is toxic, because the focus is still on being positive. Let’s take a look at a few examples of this can look like.
Scenario 1: a student has a support plan in place, and the parent tries to address their child’s needs with the teacher at meet the teacher night. The parent tries to explain that their child has a processing disorder and will need visual cues to aid with learning. Hopeful for open discussion about how to meet the child’s needs in the classroom setting, the parent soon feels shut down when the teacher responds “I’m sure Jr. will be just fine! Not to worry, I don’t accept any negative attitudes in my classroom – we only focus on what we can do here!” This likely ensures the parent does not trust the teacher from the initial interaction, and the teacher missed out on the chance to really gain insight into the way this student learns best.
Scenario 2: a friend comes to you upset about a recent breakup. She is crying and you are unsure of how to comfort your friend, so you say “oh, look on the bright side – at least you had a relationship for a while! Besides, you’ll find someone even better soon just be patient.” Whoa. This totally invalidates the painful experience your friend is having currently and communicates not only that you don’t understand what she is feeling, but that you don’t want to either. Perhaps your intention was to make her feel better, but the impact was that she now feels more isolated and even confused that perhaps she shouldn’t be feeling the way that it is. It also takes away the opportunity to talk about other aspects such as what she learned from the relationship or what she might need from you to feel supported. Definitely a missed opportunity for connection!
Scenario 3: an employee consults a supervisor regarding concerns with increased workload and potential inability to meet expected goals at a level which still ensures appropriate customer service. Instead of addressing these valid concerns, the supervisor states “I’m sure you can figure it out – you’re smart! Everyone else manages, just keep working hard and don’t be so negative about it.” There was an opportunity here to have a valuable discussion about company goals and customer needs, but instead this was lost because the conversation was shut down through the use of toxic positivity.
How does this apply to going back to work and school during a pandemic? Well, toxic positivity statements are already starting to pop up in conversations and on social media. I have seen a lot of discussion telling parents to be sure to smile and only present positive emotions to their children so as not to distress them or create worries about returning to school. What this perspective misses though is the opportunity to truly demonstrate to children how to handle adversity. Instead of showing them that yes, there are a lot of really scary things going on right now and there are really no easy answers, this attitude tells children that ignoring valid concerns and feelings is the best way to handle challenges. And this creates a cycle where feelings are internalized, pushed down, not discussed, and invalidated. That’s simply not healthy. Instead, listen to the concerns your child has (or friends, family members, employees, etc.) Remember that all feelings are valid feelings and this is an opportunity to problem solve and process together for deeper connections and better outcomes.
What is it about our culture that makes it so challenging to talk about difficult experiences or painful emotions? There is a consistent focus on ‘good vibes only!’ or ‘fake it til you make it’ or telling others to just smile a little more, or pointing out that someone else may have a worse situation. It’s important to note that this is different from positive psychology, which focuses on the strengths and enjoyable aspects of life that enhance individual and collective well-being. Positive psychology does not negate difficult experiences or reject a wide range of emotions whereas toxic positivity does. Life comes with a wide variety of experiences, and humans have a range of emotional responses to those – all of which are valid. Rejecting a whole set of feelings and perspectives just because they may be uncomfortable causes harm. And in worst case scenarios, it could actually allow abuse to continue if someone is trying to reach out for support and is shut down and told to smile about it because the listener cannot handle their own discomfort.
As we move forward into an undeniably difficult time where everyone is making impossible choices for themselves and their families with regards to school and workplace options with COVID still increasing in many areas, be mindful of how you respond to those around you. If you feel the urge to point out that others have it worse, to look on the bright side, or find yourself rejecting perceived negativity, try this instead: First, take a deep breath. Notice any discomfort you’re having and just quietly acknowledge it to yourself. You can think about what might be causing that feeling later on. Then, try responding with something along the lines of “wow, yeah that’s a lot. I’m really glad you’re talking to me about it though. What do you think would help you navigate this?” That’s it.
Validation is a really powerful tool. Taking a few moments to acknowledge someone’s fears or concerns or painful experiences may be difficult for you as the person who isn’t in the same emotional place but can have a really big (and surprisingly positive!) impact on the other person. Validating someone else’s circumstances requires tapping into empathy for a moment and sometimes being outside of your own comfort zone. But it builds connection, and ultimately this is a bridge to healing, and problem solving, and all sorts of wonderful things. Toxic positivity put barriers in place not only now, but to future encounters as well. Recognizing and addressing difficult emotions or experiences does not mean that you’re being negative and it does not mean that you have to hang out in that space the whole time, it just means that you are willing to acknowledge another person’s humanity without judgment. Responses that are full of toxic positivity are inherently full of judgment as well, which rarely creates positive outcomes.
I often think of difficult emotional conversations as a chance to hold something heavy for someone else. I’m a visual thinker, so I imagine the person is carrying something like a box labeled EMOTIONS, and they are struggling with the weight of it. So while they’re talking, I hold the heavy imaginary box for them. I don’t move to fix it or change it or solve problems or tell them that their box of heavy emotions is not full of the ones they’re feeling. I just hold it for a moment so they don’t have to feel the full burden of the weight of experience/feeling. It also helps me to be cognizant of the fact that what they’re dealing with is in fact burdensome for them – regardless of if someone has a worse situation (a heavier box?) or if I have dealt with something similar (carried a box alone?) or would feel a different way (a box full of different emotions?). This visual reminds me that how they are feeling is very real and they just need a space to process that. Maybe I can offer a few tools to handle the heaviness of it, but I don’t ignore the fact that they have a really heavy box. And once they’ve had a little reprieve, I visualize handing the imaginary box back to them because while I can’t take on ownership of someone’s difficulties, I can sure offer space to process something challenging and receive appropriate emotional support.
When someone opens up about their thoughts, feelings, concerns, etc., this is a gift. This person is expressing both their vulnerability and their trust in you to be a steward of compassion with that exposure, so always be careful with how you respond in these situations. If they are giving you the gift of insight into their inner world, be sure that you are giving them a viable gift in return. Validation, genuine concern,and empathy are all appropriate responses - but toxic positivity is essentially returning the genuine gift of trust with a gag gift of insensitivity. Be mindful of what you're giving in return!
Maybe that visual will help you when navigating difficult conversations to avoid falling into the trap of toxic positivity. If there is something else you can think of – I would love to hear it too!
And as you all are navigating this difficult time, breathe. Honour your emotions, thoughts, feelings, and experiences - and those of folks around you.