“If you see a man crying he is wondering how he got there and most likely it’s a bad place.” I came across this statement and in reflection, it made so much sense. “The best moments in reading are when you come across something, a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things that you think is special, particular to you and here it is set down by someone else a person you have never met, maybe even long dead and it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
The statement was so timely. I had just gotten to the house after a catch up with an old friend that we blended with a coaching session. Midway through the conversation he was unsuccessfully fighting tears. “I can’t cry when you are here” he said. “It’s okay” I said. “What will you do if I break down” he asked. “I will pass you more tissues and give you a hug.” I concluded on a light note. This put everything at ease. As the conversation continued he asked, “What do you think about toxic positivity?” I equate this to motivational speaking and prosperity gospel. Motivation and positivity has its place but it has its limits too. I believe in allowing people to feel the emotions and face the situation.
The conversation reminded me of a post that I had come across on social media early in the week. Someone was lamenting because a trusted friend had conned him and left him in the ‘jaws of poverty’. A lot of consoling comments followed, everything happens for a reason, be strong, stay positive, it is okay, you will get over it. The author commented in response, “it is not okay” This was followed by a more appropriate response “Yes, it is not okay, it is disappointing and frustrating, it’s okay to feel bad even as you ponder the way ahead.” This person addressed the toxic positivity.
This also reminded me of the many messages that we send people when they are grieving. A friend gave me the best support when I lost my dad. He had gone through the same some years back and had let me know I could call if I needed to talk. I looked okay for a while. However, two weeks later I had a total breakdown. I called him in and explained what happened. His words were unexpected but most appropriate. “You are going to have a couple of this, it actually never really stops and it is never the same again.” He gave me permission to break and process the emotions.
Toxic positivity is an obsession with positive thinking. It’s the belief that people should put a positive spin on all experiences even those that are profoundly tragic. It can silence emotions, demean grief and make people feel under pressure to pretend to be happy even when they are struggling. This comes with its risks;
- Ignoring real harm – Research shows that optimism, hope, and forgiveness increase the risk of people staying with their abusers.
- Demeaning loss – Grief and sadness are normal. A person who repeatedly hears messages to move on or be happy might feel as though others do not care about their loss.
- Isolation – People who feel pressure to smile in the face of adversity may be less likely to seek support. They may feel isolated or ashamed of their feelings, deterring them from seeking help.
- Poor problem solving – We all have challenges, toxic positivity encourages people to ignore these challenges and focus on the positive.
- Self-doubt – When one is unable to feel positive they may feel as if they are failures.
We hence need to know where to draw the line between healthy positivity and toxic positivity by;
- Recognizing negative emotions as normal and an important part of the human experience
- Identifying and naming emotions rather than trying to avoid them
- Talking with trusted people about emotions, including negative feelings
- Seeking support from nonjudgmental people, such as trusted friends or a therapist
We also need to support others by;
- Encouraging people to speak openly about their emotions
- Getting more comfortable with negative emotions
- Avoid trying to have a positive response to everything a person says
We are so wrapped up in a world of ‘staying positive’ that we are ashamed to actually feel anything else. Understand that you are human and negative thoughts form; recognize how you feel and how it is affecting you.