Antonymic, really? How strange does this title sound? How can this be?
How do you feel when you switch on the news or read them? Strong warning against each and every harmful act we all do to ourselves, to our habitat, to our world. Perverse narcissism making the headlines, abuse and assault on every medium, protests, complaints, job losses, wars, bomb attacks, and so on. How do we tend to respond to this daily negative dose we clearly cannot avoid? Denial, sarcasm, retreat, and at times extreme positivity.
Don’t get me wrong, positivity does exist and it doesn’t lead to toxicity necessarily. We also learn from this tough world thankfully! An equally strong movement of groups, professions, associations
1. Feelings are not validated
Well-meaning comments such as ‘If you stay positive, you’ll overcome any obstacle’ or ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ may not be helpful for mainly two reasons. First, by saying this the speaker may feel you are brushing away the feelings he has been courageous enough to share with you. He may feel he is not heard and, worse, that he is let down.
Besides, if you don’t ask, you will not know the roots of his sadness and the speaker may not feel comfortable enough to tell you more about his situation based on your first ‘should-have-been’ positive response.
Therefore, this may lead to a huge misunderstanding due to miscommunication. How? You think that your genuine reply should be regarded as supportive and on the contrary the speaker thinks that you are not interested in whatever is going on in his life, feeling there is no point in going further.
2. Lack of Support
Just picture yourself going through an experience you don’t feel good about, like having financial difficulties. This makes you feel insecure, unsure about the future, and extremely worried about the consequences. You meet a friend you want to talk to but you are feeling quite vulnerable. You test the water first and say, ‘I am not feeling good. I am kind of worried things will not end up as well as I thought initially’. And your friend who believes that thinking ‘negatively’ doesn’t fix anything replies, ‘Mate, don’t worry. You are strong. Life is too short to let anything bring you down’.
Honestly, do you feel validated, understood? Do you want to share your difficulties at this specific moment? There is a good chance you’ll please your friend by saying, ‘You’re right. Nothing to worry about. Just a bad day.’ And then you may move on, have a very good time with this friend anyway but in the end, you haven’t been able to have the deep conversation you needed and you haven’t felt supported.
3. Feelings of Shame triggered
This so-called power of positivity may be damaging at times. For our own well-being, it is crucial to acknowledge a rough day or any event that makes us feel low, insecure, or depressed. It is indeed healthier to go through it, digest it, and learn from it. Rejecting it or being in denial acts like a backlash.
Extreme positivity definitely becomes toxic when it fails to process any legitimate underlying feelings/emotions seen as ‘negative’.
Again, picture a man who has just been diagnosed with testicular cancer. Apart from the usual
Well, not helpful since his friend needed to share his feelings of fear and shame. By pushing aside these bad news, he also increases these feelings of shame unconsciously. Not only did he cut short the conversation but he also denied his friend’s right to call out his situation as completely dreadful and demeaning in his mind.
The examples I use may seem a little far-fetched or extreme. They actually did happen. In a society where ‘good vibes only’ has become the best motto ever thinking it represents the best way to move forward may be at times damaging. Listen to what your friend, speaker really means, tries to share. Over-positive responses may be felt like an attempt to suppress the true feelings of the speaker, forcing him to put on a happy face.
Grief, shame, sadness, bad days are real and must be heard, processed and accepted. Yes, you can change reality, a situation, by how you think about it, the way you respond to it. This means in reality that you can improve a situation by reflecting on it, adapting your attitude and mindset, learning from it by accepting your current ‘negative’ feelings. The risk of extreme positivity is to give too much credit to magical thinking and eradicate the person’s strong emotions.
Try to attune to your friend/speaker’s feelings, understand what he may be going through even if your own reaction would be different from his. Accept his reality and if you want to offer your support, do it accordingly. Do you have an example of toxic positivity to share?