Technically, nothing is toxic about positivity, gratitude or mindfulness. There are plenty of studies that show the benefits of those things. So why we do warn folks about “toxic positivity”?
Let me share a couple of links, and other people’s words to try and explain.
First, you can listen to Dr, Susan David and Brene Brown talk about it on the Dare to Lead podcast.
In it, you’ll find Dr. David walk through what has become a typical exercise among self-appointed gratitude gurus. Take a sheet of paper and write down what you’re feeling right now. Then, immediately, turn it over and write down things you are grateful for. As she describes, the issue here is not that you’re grateful for things. That’s good for us. It’s the immediate switch, the message that whatever you are feeling now can just be ignored, and we can just focus instead on something else.
So in the middle of a pandemic, in the face of racial injustice, or after being a victim of sexual abuse, or some other crime, we are supposed to ignore that, flip the page, and be positive. No acknowledgement of the pain, the injustice, anything. Just be grateful, for something.
Is it any wonder that we have generations of people who are unable to sit with, and process, painful emotions?
But, don’t just take my word for it. Consider this description from a couple of professionals:
“Toxic positivity is going straight to those feelings that we naturally want more of, like joy and happiness, and wanting to bypass the emotions that are more difficult to sit with,” says John-Paul Davies, psychotherapist, counsellor and author of personal development book, Finding A Balanced Connection.
“The reason there’s a toxicity to it is that feelings are responses to things that are happening around us, so they need to be given space,” he explains.
Dr Lynda Shaw, a change specialist, chartered psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist (drlyndashaw.com), adds that “as a society, we really like to use language like ‘positive emotions’ and ‘negative emotions. But the truth is, there’s no such thing as good and bad feelings. All emotional states are valuable to our human experience, and anxiety, anger and fear are primitive ways of keeping us safe and well.”
This is really my biggest problem. Sometimes, sadness, grief, anger, and uncertainty are entirely appropriate, so why are we telling people to ignore those emotions?
Look at it this way, when we watched George Floyd’s death on video, we all felt something, and it probably wasn’t all that pleasant. Or, when we read the overwhelming number of deaths from COVID, we felt something. Maybe we all didn’t feel exactly the same thing, but we all felt something, and maybe most of all we felt a need to do something about it. If we had simply flipped the page and focused on what we are grateful for, we weren’t changing anything, we aren’t doing the things we need to do to keep ourselves safe and well. We are just ignoring it.
Maybe most of all, we aren’t developing any resiliency either. We aren’t learning about emotions, and how to, as John-Paul Davies says above, give them space. We are not giving ourselves space to feel, and the skills to go on even with those emotions.
That doesn’t sound healthy to me. It sounds, in fact, toxic.
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