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Toxic Positivity

Ever feel like you’re the lead in a slapstick comedy where you’re getting knocked-down, doused in water, dropping your keys in the elevator shaft, and dropping a dozen cakes down a flight of stairs? What do you want your friends to say?

Sorry you lost your job, but now you can focus on finding your dream job!

Your car was totaled! But you’re okay. That’s what matters.

You have a new food allergy? Avoiding some foods might help you discover new ones!

These phrases are made up for this example and have such good intentions. Why do we do this? To make someone else feel better? Maybe it’s to avoid emotions (ours and theirs) that are more difficult to manage such as fear, frustration, anxiety, or straight-up angry.

There is research about being positive and even smiling. There is no reason to argue that smiling doesn’t help and isn’t good. Smiling helps a lot of things. It turns out smiling is a very positive behavior, unless someone else tells us to do it and that’s when the wheels come off the wagon. That’s a topic for another day…

But are we expected to smile our way through every problem? Of course not. That’s silly. Your mom died? Smile! That’s extreme and not the intent. It is similarly silly to think that we can just “positive” our way through every problem. Not acknowledging difficult emotions can, “Among other things, [have] marked negative effects on your emotional and physical health” (Spayde, 2010)

It is laudable to find the bright side. It is generally healthy to be optimistic. The danger is when optimism and positivity completely overshadow the whole self which includes emotions that are not the ones you want to bring out too often. To quickly spin any life event to turn it into a positive can stunt true development. “Once you accept the emotions, you can engage your conscious mind to make calm decisions about how to act – if indeed, you need to act at all” (Jangra, 2017).

Think about the bad things that happen in life as a short-term physical illness. When a person falls ill, they might feel really badly for a while. They might have very dramatic physical responses including fevers, chills, dehydration (without being graphic), and even hallucinations. At what point do we tell these folks, “look on the bright side, you get to lay around all day!” The parent with Terminal Dad Jokes might, but not in earnest.

What to do?

Be empathic. People who are upset just may need to be upset. An early attempt to cheer someone up may be undercutting their emotions of the event. A person who has a sudden break-up with their partner needs to have room to be upset. An attempt to quickly sign them up for a dating app will likely be seen as fully tone-deaf.

Listen and listen some more. This is not the time to share your comparable experience, offer advice, or hand out solutions. Just hear the person who is upset. Hear why they’re upset. Participate in the conversation to fully comprehend their point of view. This will help you in the moment AND will help later when it is time to discuss what happens next.

Offer prompts. “Tell me more.” “How did that make you feel?” And of course, “[silence].” Try to avoid questions about behavior such as “why did/didn’t you…” This isn’t about discovering facts or finding faults. This is about the person who is upset being a full human and letting all of their emotions run their course. Fact-finding might come later. But if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter.

If you are a positive person and you like to find the positivity in everything, that is wonderful. For you. That may be a horrible fit for someone else. If constant and unwavering positivity works for you (and I truly hope it does) enjoy it! Also appreciate that others might need to express a wider range of emotions to be their authentic selves.



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