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When Sue confessed to being anxious about the impending project deadline, her manager dismissed her concerns, assuring her that he just knew that Sue would find a way to pull through – she always did!

John was still having a hard time putting one foot in front of another six months after a painful break-up. His colleague June, trying to cheer him up, reminded him what a “great catch” he’d be for someone else. She urged him to “stop being so negative and smile more often.”

Rachel was counting on a promotion so she and her family could leave their cramped apartment. Her dreams of homeownership were suddenly dashed when she learned that promotions were on hold indefinitely. Her teammate consoled her: “Well, at least you still have a roof over your head, right?”

After three jobless months, Luis landed a coveted interview. He felt so sure the job was his that he celebrated with a round of drinks with his friends later that evening. But just two gulps into his beer, his phone beeped. It was a text from his recruiter: “Sorry, they’ve decided on someone else. But remember – as one door closes, another opens…”

What do all of these scenarios have in common? Two words: Toxic positivity. Simply put, toxic positivity is the insistence that people put a positive spin on all experiences, even during times of great adversity, deep disappointment, grievous sadness, or shocked outrage. Maybe you’ve tried to help a colleague or friend uplift their spirits by assuring them that time heals all wounds, or that karma will take care of everything. (I know I have!) You might wonder, what’s the harm? After all, isn’t it true that imagining positive outcomes can help us get through difficult situations?

Yes, to a point. Envisioning a positive outcome when minds are calm and clear can help create a path for better things to come. When we dismiss the legitimacy of heartfelt emotions by implying that “positive vibes” will make everything okay, we stand to cause real harm. Such toxic positivity can serve to squelch emotions, cause feelings of shame, stifle self-awareness, prevent growth, and perhaps most damaging of all, deter us from seeking understanding or support.

Whether we’re urging ourselves to find that elusive silver lining at all costs, or it’s others who toss off affirming platitudes to help us feel better, this insistence on seeing the bright side comes at a cost. There are many times when we just can’t see any upside to a bad situation, and maybe we’d be better off not even trying, at least in the moment.

Here are some tips for avoiding the ill effects of toxic positivity, whether you’re the one acknowledging your feelings, or on the receiving end. 

When you’re looking for understanding or support:

 

  • Be realistic about what you should be feeling, given the circumstances, whether it’s grief, disappointment, anger, anxiety, guilt or outrage. Don’t fault yourself for experiencing emotions that are understandable and appropriate.
  • Ask the other person if it’s a good time to talk. Try not to catch someone off-guard or interrupt them when they’re in the middle of something that can’t easily be set aside. You want an active, caring listener, vs. someone who’s multitasking or rushing from thing to thing.
  • Ask if it’s okay to disclose what you’re going through. If so, share whatever details feel safe and appropriate. Be attentive to cues that may signal this person may not be ready to listen to what you have to say. Some people feel uncomfortable hearing about someone’s feelings, which is one reason so many people tend to toss out glib assurances as they quickly back away.
  • Be clear about what you want and need, whether it’s someone to simply listen, offer some kind of support, or provide guidance. I know that I’ve jumped into the advice-giving mode when my colleague only wanted a chance to express their feelings and feel understood, which has backfired many times, despite my good intentions.
  • Acknowledge how you think your situation may be affecting your work and the work of the team, if you have an idea. If it’s a close friend or family member, discuss how it may be affecting your friendship or family life. Make yourself as vulnerable as you feel comfortable by asking for the kind of support you might need.
  • Depending on your relationship with the person you’re sharing with, you may want to diplomatically let the other person know what won’t help right now, like assurances that “this, too, shall pass” or similar platitudes.

When someone wants understanding or support from you:

  • Stop, put down whatever you’re doing, and meet their gaze to the degree it’s possible, given your respective locations.
  • Listen without interrupting. Refrain from asking questions or offering advice until they’ve finished or reached a natural pause. Realize that the very act of talking about emotions can help our brains process our feelings more effectively, making us feel less overwhelmed. Sometimes just listening is enough.
  • Affirm that you’re listening. This can take the form of nodding, shaking your head or uttering a few encouraging responses, like “Oh, wow,” “Yikes, that must have hurt a lot,” or “I can understand why you’re so upset.”
  • Compassion takes many forms. Whether you offer to help in some tangible way, or provide emotional support by affirming their feelings, find a way to validate that their feelings are real, understandable, and important. If you feel like your advice will be welcomed, ask before offering it.
  • Resist the temptation to offer a positive spin to the situation (“Things will look brighter tomorrow”). This kind of response may only serve to dismiss the gravity of the other person’s feelings, possibly making them feel weak, ashamed or isolated.

This insistence on staying positive and being productive during a time when so many feel socially isolated can be especially troubling. Says Clinical Psychologist Dr. Jamie Zuckerman in an article by Catherine Renton in British Vogue (Toxic Positivity: Are You Spreading It?), “We are currently experiencing the collective trauma of a global pandemic. It is uncertain, anxiety-provoking and often grief-inducing. The pressure and expectation to ‘be positive’ during a crisis invalidates a person’s negative, yet extremely appropriate, emotions.”

“The hard truth is, you can’t make someone feel happy by telling them to cheer up. You can’t mend heartache and grief with memes. When people tell you how they feel…instead of parroting motivational quotes, we should normalize the notion that all feelings are normal – not just the happy ones. The world would be a much kinder place if we switched off the toxic positivity and resolved to talk about the full spectrum of human emotions – good and bad.” – Catherine Renton, author of Toxic Positivity in British Vogue

 

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