Q and A: Why, Toxic Positivity, WHY?

clear light bulb placed on chalkboard
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I promised questions and answers! This is a culmination of a week of reflecting on toxic positivity. First, I asked my Instagram followers this:

  • How has toxic positivity affected you? (All answers shared anonymously and with minor edits.)
    • “My mother used to do this to me as a child. It would make me feel like my feelings weren’t valid or important enough to be addressed.”
    • “When people say ‘thoughts and prayers’ it feels like that’s their way of ignoring the real issue.”
    • “I feel it truly led to my recent breakdown, as I felt like I wasn’t honoring my own emotions.”
    • “I wasn’t able to ask questions about MY childhood trauma as an adult because ‘I turned out fine, why dig it up?’ As a child grieving a pet death, I thought I was broken because I was told ‘would he want you sad?'”
    • “Narcissistic family member telling me to ‘stop being so negative’ when calling out their behavior.”
    • “My parents will say like ‘it could be worse.’ Makes it hard to have real discussions and share feelings.”
    • “‘It could always be worse.’ Like yeah that’s probably true but it doesn’t help me with whatever I’m dealing with at the moment.”
    • “It’s made me feel isolated at times I most needed to know I was understood.”

It’s essential to notice the pattern in all of these: The NEED for honesty and self-honor. How many issues could we resolve earlier in life if we honored feelings with honesty?

I also asked my followers this:

  • What do you want to ask others (or me) about toxic positivity?
    • How to set a boundary with a friend/loved one that is using toxic positivity as “support.”
    • How do you get people close to you to stop or realize how harmful it is?

My answers to both questions reside here and here, but I’ll pose these questions to my followers in my stories today, so look for that before it’s gone!

And then there are the questions I posited at the beginning of the week. They are below with my answers. My take may not resonate with you, so if you want another perspective, check the hashtag toxicpositivity on any social media. There’s a ton of beautiful, helpful content on this topic.

How has toxic positivity kept you down?

For me, it’s added to my anxiety by making me feel guilty for having legitimate feelings. It’s kept me quiet when I wanted to speak up. It’s kept me from defending myself and self-advocacy.

How has a culture of toxic positivity kept you from facing the pain of growth?

Until I started self-compassion work in therapy in 2020, I didn’t think of so-called negative emotions as valid because I was told to stay positive. This affected me even more than some others because I like to be honest (embarrassingly so), which is not Iowa or Midwest Nice. People would ask, “How are you?” and I didn’t want to lie and say, “I’m good!” So, I’d say, “I’m alive,” and no one knew what to do with that. People often called me “negative,” which I never understood, so I assumed there was something wrong with me.

Now, I know emotions are morally neutral. What I’ve learned is this: What I thought was a flaw in me was others feeling uncomfortable with honesty. Having this knowledge now helps me re-find my wholeness instead of feeling broken and misunderstood.

How has American toxic positivity furthered your trauma?

I’ve kept half the shit that has happened to me to myself. I thought being open about my pain meant I was a downer and an attention-whore. (There is no such thing as an attention-whore, but that’s a post for another day.)

In America, we’re in a society that is so wrapped up in appearance that we are more concerned with looking good than feeling good. Moreover, we mistake looking good with not upsetting people even if it makes us feel terrible. As I’ve never cared much about my appearance, I’m so glad I started putting validity and respect on my feelings and traumas.

What can you do about it?

I can be honest. I can keep working to eliminate toxic positivity from my responses. I can think before I speak. I can stop centering my feelings when I’m listening to others. I can keep working toward recognizing the neutrality of emotions. I can remind my support system to listen when I need that. I can keep working toward not feeling bad when I tell people that I’m not looking for advice, tips, or suggestions.

THANK YOU for joining me this week on this adventure! I’ll be doing similar themes in the weeks ahead. Next week, I’ll discuss body movement versus exercise.

Toxic Positivity and What Do You Mean “Talk about It”?!

How about the direct approach when faced with toxic positivity? Not everyone will be comfortable confronting their supposed-to-be support systems about toxic positivity, but my aim is to give you scripts to tackle it.

But first, a recap. Over the last few days, we learned:

Now, we need to discuss a strategy for calling out and avoiding toxic positivity. That strategy is direct communication. There’s SO MUCH power in direct communication, but people fear it. They don’t want to offend, be a burden, hurt someone’s feelings, be seen as mean, and so on. But indirect communication is keeping us stuck. It prevents us from seeing the gift of direct communication:

https://twitter.com/karmaldonado_/status/1246957935969759232

While not everyone is being “phony,” I do think we aren’t being true to ourselves for the sake of others. After all, the best way to be kind is to not hurt other people’s feelings, right?

Yeah, no. I’m not saying we should go around saying hurtful things to others because we can. Instead, I’m saying we cannot control how people feel, if they get offended, or their reactions to what we say. We have no say in how others react. As a control enthusiast and a writer, I want to evoke certain reactions in my readers. I might succeed with some, but others might call bullshit. I have zero control over that. Admitting that sucks.

Also, the desire to be kind is admirable, but what if being direct were kinder?

Not convinced? Say hello to Jordan and Taylor again. Here’s option one:

Taylor: I’ve been feeling really sad lately, and I don’t know why.

Jordan: What? Why? You have it so great! Just cheer up! Don’t be sad! Whatever it is, you’ll get over it!

Taylor, internally: That doesn’t make me feel better.

Taylor, to Jordan: Oh. Yeah. I guess.

That felt sad. Here’s option two:

Taylor: I’ve been feeling really sad lately, and I don’t know why.

Jordan: What? Why? You have it so great! Just cheer up! Don’t be sad! Whatever it is, you’ll get over it!

Taylor, internally: That doesn’t make me feel better.

Taylor, to Jordan: That doesn’t make me feel better. It feels like forcing positivity when I’m not feeling positive.

Jordan: Well, sometimes, you have to fake it to make it!

Taylor: I feel like my feelings are being invalidated with toxic positivity. It’d feel a lot better to be heard and have my sadness recognized. If you’re not in a place to hear me out, I understand. Please don’t minimize my feelings though.

Taylor might feel awkward and anxious, but those feelings are important too. Jordan might get upset, might agree and apologize, or might change the subject. None of that is in Taylor’s control. However, Taylor stood their ground, protected their feelings, set a boundary, and let Jordan know why a certain behavior was unhelpful. Notice Taylor didn’t say, “Jordan, you’re being a jerk.” There is love and kindness in direct communication. It means we want the other person to do and be better.

Notice also Taylor made it about their feelings and not about Jordan’s character. This is not a personal attack on Jordan; it’s the truth about what Taylor is feeling.

Lastly, notice Taylor directly stated “toxic positivity.” We cannot improve our behavior if we don’t have the names and tools to learn. Having the behavior labeled gives us a chance to research (and by research . . . memes?). While we don’t have to force the phrase into the conversation, it does help others to know about the patterns of their behavior.

Here are other approaches if you’re on the receiving end of toxic positivity [with the phrase added for clarity]:

  • It’s important to me to be heard and not disregarded [with toxic positivity].
  • I know you mean well, and I appreciate that. I’m looking for a listener and not advice [or toxic positivity].
  • I need time to feel these feelings [which toxic positivity doesn’t allow].
  • I want you to validate that it’s normal to feel this way [and not respond with toxic positivity].
  • I’d normally ignore this, but I feel compelled to say something [about toxic positivity].
  • It might be uncomfortable, but please just hear me out first.
  • It’s so sweet of you to want to fix this. I want a listener, not a fixer.
  • Can you just hug me?
  • Maybe you could do [X] to help?
  • Could you hand me my stuffed penguin, and gimme a little time to myself? (Yeah, that one’s oddly specific to me.)

If you’re the one being toxically positivity, here’s alternatives:

  • It’s OK not to be OK.
  • Your experiences and feelings are valid.
  • How you feel is important to me.
  • What can I do to help? (I like this more than “how can I help” because it stresses the desire to be given actual tasks.)
  • I might not be able to relate, but I can listen.
  • I’m not sure I can help, but maybe we could find helpful resources together?
  • Ugh, that sucks. What helps you when you feel down?
  • Crying [or snuggling stuffed animals, emotional eating, leaning into the feeling, watching your favorite show] is a healthy way to cope! Want me to join you?
  • I love you!
  • Want a hug?
  • Would time alone help?

My sincerest hope is for us to feel more comfortable with being uncomfortably honest to honor our feelings. I want us to have enough compassion for ourselves that we don’t protect other’s feelings before we protect our own. With that in mind, I turn it to you. What are some things that you might say to someone who is using toxic positivity? What are some things you could say to avoid toxic positivity? Share with me in the comments!

And tomorrow . . . the questions: How has toxic positivity kept you down? How has a culture of toxic positivity kept you from facing the pain of growth? How has American toxic positivity furthered your trauma? What can you do about it?

Toxic Positivity and Let’s Be Honest

In the last post, I asked if you were ready to talk about toxic positivity and honesty, and here we are. If the last post about finding support didn’t fit your circumstances, maybe honesty with your loved ones is the solution. We don’t have accept toxic positivity from others or within ourselves. We can ask those in our lives and ourselves to shift how we respond to pain.

Let me start with honesty of my own, and I’ll strike a more serious tone because this one hurts.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

Story Time

My family faced a horrible struggle recently, and one night, a family member called me sobbing. I’ve only seen this family member cry twice, and both times, it was instant tears for me. I’d always been told not to cry, so as therapeutic as it is, I haven’t yet overcome the shame of tears.

Once they started crying, I said, “Don’t cry! You’ll make me cry too!” It was a panic reaction, I admit, and it was rife with toxic positivity. First, I invalidated how my family member was feeling; second, I made my family member feel the need to apologize (which they did, and I immediately realized my mistake); and third, I implied my family member was responsible for my emotional reaction, which they aren’t. It made a tough situation worse. I tried to backpedal and say crying was a perfectly healthy way to cope with the situation, but the damage was done. I shamed one of the people I care about most during the hardest time, and it SUUUCCCCKKKKEEEDDD.

Part of me wanted to yell, “But I learned it by watching you,” but blaming them for my failing would only make it worse.

So, I’m left asking, “What can I do better the next time?” The family challenge we’re facing is not over and threatens to be long-term, so I have opportunities to be a better person, offer better support, and validate our emotional reactions together.

The answer is to be honest with myself and my family member.

What I mean specifically is to address in the moment when toxic positivity arises. If you’re non-confrontational, direct honesty might be hard. However, I’m a believer we can all learn to be more supportive, and to do it, we need to know how we might be failing the people we love. Thus, honesty is, as nearly always, the best policy.

Direct honesty can seem impossible in the moment because moments go by fast. Before you end up in that moment, get to know and practice this three-step process to prepare: Recognize, Contextualize, and Respond.

Recognize

Taylor: I’ve been feeling really sad lately, and I don’t know why.

Jordan: What? Why? You have it so great! Just cheer up! Don’t be sad! Whatever it is, you’ll get over it!

Oof. Jordan needs a little practice.

Recognizing toxic positivity is about mindfulness. In other words, it requires us to think about our reactions, thoughts, and words in the moment. It is critical thinking in the present or thinking about our thinking in the immediate. And. It’s. So. Hard. We tend to react and move on. But recognition requires slowing down to think about the words and phrases as we hear them. And if we know what toxic positivity sounds like going into emotional chats, we are already prepared to provide and receive support.

Here’s what toxic positivity sounds like:

These responses range from good-intentioned denial to gaslighting, which is a form of abuse. And we all want to do better than abuse. And if you don’t, let’s chat about therapy options. (Not a joke.)

Contextualize

Next, be mindful of situations when and where toxic positivity can happen.

Say you’re feeling down, and you converse with a friend. The moment you reach out to your friend, think about what you’re feeling, what you want to say, and how you think your friend will react. If your friend is someone who typically utters the phrases above, ask yourself if you’re in the mindset to push back on their toxic positivity. If you’re OK with pushing back, go ahead and call that friend, prepared for the need to call that toxic positivity out. If you’re not, I send you back to yesterday’s piece on finding support.

The same goes for if you’re asked to be there for a friend. As soon as a friend says they are feeling down, give yourself a five-second pause to process what they’re saying, how you normally react, and what might be best. Five seconds in the moment might seem like forever, but you might be surprised how fast that actually goes. It might look like this:

Taylor: I don’t know. I just feel shitty lately.

Jordan, internally: OK, breathe. My friend feels shitty. I don’t want my friend to feel shitty, but maybe they need an ear, not for me to fix it.

Respond

Let’s return to Jordan’s initial reaction. Maybe Taylor doesn’t love Jordan’s toxic positivity, but struggles with confrontation. Taylor might say, “Yeah, I know.” And that’s the end of it. Jordan reacted. Taylor reacted. No one feels any better. No progress is made.

The honesty option lets Taylor be honest with themselves by saying, “I need more,” and let’s Jordan have an opportunity to do better. Here are some things Taylor could say:

  • I’m not sure that’s helpful. Do you have the time and mental space to hear me out?
  • That might be true. I would like someone to listen though.
  • I’m still sad though.
  • I do have great stuff in my life, but I’m still human.

Jordan could react (instead of respond) and continue the toxic positivity by saying things like, “Nah, you’re fine.” If so, Taylor has more choices like saying, “OK, I have to go, but I’ll talk with you soon” and finding other support, or Taylor could push more by saying, “Jordan, please. I just need a friend who doesn’t deny my feelings.” But the latter tends to lead to more conflict, and when you’re feeling down, more conflict doesn’t typically help. It always depends upon the friendship, but when you’re feeling shitty, you shouldn’t have to press for support.

What’s important here is to know it’s OK to end unsupportive conversations. It doesn’t mean that relationship is over or that Jordan is a bad person. Instead, it means Taylor knows now to find support elsewhere because Jordan can’t help in that moment. It might also plant the seed in Jordan’s head that they could change their approach or have some things to work out themselves. We all have trauma, and we can’t always be there for others like they need. The sooner we admit that, the sooner we can reduce toxic positivity.

Next Step

Remembering to try this in the moment can be hard, so I return to the simplicity of the process: Recognize, Contextualize, and Respond. Even if you start with recognize and do nothing else, that’s a huge step, and it’s worthy of Winning at Life Dance!

http://gph.is/2iO6UWl

Like I said in the initial post, the last option I’ll cover is to talk about it. Jordan and Taylor will make another appearance tomorrow as we learn to improve our relationships and talk about those uncomfortable things.

That said, we’re one step closer to answering these questions: How has toxic positivity kept you down? How has a culture of toxic positivity kept you from facing the pain of growth? How has American toxic positivity furthered your trauma? What can you do about it?

Toxic Positivity v. Healthy Dose of Reality

Yesterday, I lobbed questions asking what to do about toxic positivity:

How has toxic positivity kept you down? How has a culture of toxic positivity kept you from facing the pain of growth? How has American toxic positivity furthered your trauma? What can you do about it?

See the original post here.

If your answers are all “I don’t know” or “I know, but I could use some pointers” or “Bitch, I’m an expert, but go on,” then this is the first of three strategy-heavy posts to pull you out of the mire of fake smiles and syrupy feelgoodism.

I said the first of the “seemingly easy solutions” was to find support. These are some ways to find healthy, kind support that doesn’t minimize your experiences, feelings, and pain.

Support Looks Like Happiness

Of course, finding any support poses the risk of more toxic positivity. And where you find support depends upon who you are, where you invest your time, and what you value. I could tell you there are caring folks all over social media, but what they post might not be to your liking. I follow a bunch of folks who hype people up within their niches like finances, dance, and body acceptance. Sometimes, even a good meme account or the internet’s best pets help.

The thought is this: Support doesn’t have to be someone who directly addresses your pain. It can be whatever doesn’t feel toxic just to have a haven away from numbed-out denial smiles.

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Support Looks Like DMS, Texts, & Chats

Those folks you go to for meme shares, giggle fits, and gif-heavy group chats might be the support you need, but maybe you didn’t think of them. Maybe you’ve missed the obvious. That’s not an insult! Maybe you’re like me, and you have to joke your way through everything to avoid vulnerability. So, your group chats look like this:

This is an actual screenshot of the group chat between my loved ones.

It might feel awkward, but it can be worth it to say to those same folks: “Hey, this sucks for me right now, and everyone I talk to tells me to get over it. I need a hug.” Those chats might turn into this, which is a shit ton better than, “Other people have it worse.”

Same group chat, new day. It was a rough one for all of us.

The point is: While some of your closest humans might not be great with support, others could be if given a chance. They might’ve been holding on to that Baymax gif for months. Who knows?

Support Looks Like Self-Compassion

Don’t forget you. Self-compassion might not be your apricot jam, but it can be, and you already have it in you to try. OK, get that sarcastic laughing out of your system.

I get it. Less than a year ago, the idea of self-compassion was a joke to me. I still and always will have doubts about it; however, therapy, a fantastic resource, and a commitment to feeling better helped me see the sheer strength self-compassion can provide. It can help you:

  • create boundaries with Toxic-Positivity Tinas (I’m going with that; sorry to the people named Tina . . . minus one . . . but that’s a story for another day),
  • hype yourself up because if you can be your own worst critic, you can also be your own best cheerleader, and
  • find the strength to seek mental health help in the form of a counselor or therapy, if that’s a thing you’re considering.

I’m not even scratching the surface of options here, but it’s a place to start. Just pick and use one to see what it’s like to find someone who supports you without the minimizing, denial, and redirection. Even if it’s reading posts on Instagram about toxic positivity, it’s a way to see for yourself that there’s other support waiting for you.

Plus, starting here can help you consider the questions I asked at the start, which I’ll get to on Saturday. But for now, what will you try? And are you ready to talk about honesty tomorrow? Because it’s happening.

Toxic Positivity or America’s Favorite Pastime

The Bastards

We often hear the phrase “don’t let the bastards get you down” or my favorite (fictional) version, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” and it’s a good personal policy. Too many bastards are out to make us feel like shit for [insert your reason here]. Bastards deplete our energy. It’s in their job description.

https://giphy.com/gifs/editingandlayout-people-it-crowd-yidUznwbfpbq85663e

That being said, there’s a misunderstanding of the phrase. Some see not letting the bastards get you down as a chance to ignore or disregard trauma. It’s a form of toxic positivity that keeps us fragmented, picked at, and outside ourselves. It’s like what life was like in Iowa after experiencing a natural disaster during racial injustice and a pandemic. Back in August of 2020, my state had its umpteenth derecho, but it was more widespread and devastating than anything most of us had experienced. People lost old, beloved trees, roofs, cars, food, windows, housing, and some, their lives.

Yet, the myth that is Iowa Nice led too many of us to say, “It could’ve been worse.” If the tree in the yard fell, we were grateful it didn’t fall on the house. If it fell on the house, we were grateful we weren’t in the room when it happened. If we were in the room when it happened, we were grateful we survived. Iowa Nice–as well-intentioned as it always pretends to be–is toxic positivity. We’re taught to be grateful even if all we have is our traumatized selves, to smile even if we’re screaming inside, to say hello to someone on the sidewalk even if that person is being a creep. Doing or saying anything else is complaining, negativity, impolite, & ungrateful, and that’s just not the Midwestern way.

Certainly, there is power in positivity, but it’s OK to say, “Well, this fucking sucks.”

https://gfycat.com/bonyimpassioneddarwinsfox

However, this isn’t just an Iowa Nice thing. Toxic positivity is a trait of American culture. It’s no wonder we internalize this shit.

The Truth Is Icky

Take insurrection as a casual example (because apparently, this is a thing we do now). In January 2021, terrorists attacked America and attempted a coup all in the names of racism, entitlement, privilege, and Trump. In the aftermath, public leaders kept stating what those terrorists did was not the true version of America; however, millions of Americans rightfully pointed out this is exactly what America has always been: A country snuggled in the romantic embrace of White supremacy. To say America was anything different was a denial based in privilege. It was pretending everything was OK at the expense of those traumatized. It was, simply, toxic positivity. It’s no wonder so many of us felt exhausted for a week afterward. Not only were we traumatized, but our trauma was minimized by the people who could do something to stop it happening again.

Admitting some shit sucks requires a level of self-awareness, honesty, and authenticity that millions of Americans are not willing to do yet. Facing the truth–be it on a personal or national level–requires emotional strength and vulnerability, something most Americans eschew in favor of unbothered individualism. After all, telling people they “need therapy” is still lobbied as an insult when, in fact, we all need therapy. It’s entrenched in our pop culture even. Damn near every movie or show plot could be resolved with fucking therapy. (Try that some time. Watch something, and look for the way the conflict is set up, and ask, “Could that have been resolved with therapy?” It’s the worst game to play, but hey, it’s better than staring at the wall another few hours during this pandemic.)

https://imgur.com/t/loki/3HYwLGw

Toxic Poisoning

When we trade the potential pain of self-honesty for the guaranteed pain of toxic positivity, we perpetuate, maintain, and generate more trauma. Unresolved trauma is the root of most social problems (don’t at me). Basically, toxic positivity represses, denies, and ignores trauma and problems. Ignoring problems can lead to mental health concerns. It can shrink and deplete us. We end up giving away pieces of ourselves to keep the peace.

Proof? I return to the compulsion for political and media leaders to lie to Americans. Denying our entire traumatic history of social injustice, White supremacy, and violence sets the country up for repeats (maybe ad nauseam). Leaders, unfortunately, see themselves as decorative duct-tape (well-dressed temporary solutions), but true leadership does not pretend everything is fine. Pick your own gif for that one.

So, Now What?

By contrast, addressing truths brings the pain of discomfort and growth. I argue it starts with us. The questions become: How has toxic positivity kept you down? How has a culture of toxic positivity kept you from facing the pain of growth? How has American toxic positivity furthered your trauma? What can you do about it?

Three seemingly easy solutions are:

  • Find support
  • Be honest
  • Talk about it

But the details of those things are easier said than done. As the week goes on, I’ll elaborate on each.