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.

Scrabble tiles that say "please forgive me"
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:

Toxic positivity sounds like:  Just stay positive! No one likes negative people!  Look on the bright side! It could be worse.  Everything happens for a reason. God only gives you what you can handle.  Happiness is a choice! Cheer up!
Failure isn't an option! Try harder! Never give up! If I can do it, so can you!  It will be fine. It's not that bad. You're overreacting. You'll get over it.  Don't cry! You'll make me cry too!  Don't be sad. Everything will work out.  Stop complaining. You have it great!  And sadly more . . .

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!

Carlton from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air dancing
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?

Talk to me!