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 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.

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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.

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