Smile though your Heart is Aching - the Dangers of Toxic Positivity
Updated: Jun 22, 2021
The Covid-19 pandemic and countless lockdowns are giving rise to some big feelings. I get a sense that many of us are at a critical point now in terms of what do we do with these emotions? How do we handle them and ourselves with care? How do we process it all in a way that will protect, rather than damage, our mental health?
So I'm going to contextualise this piece by saying that something came up for me personally this week, where I noticed that I was at a bit of a tipping point emotionally and the intensity of emotion kind of caught me off guard. I think perhaps, like many of us, I've had no choice but to keep forging ahead in the face of intense change and uncertainty. And with this sweeping tornado of change - from juggling the shifting demands of parenting and my children’s mental health, to the way I show up for my job- I've not really had the opportunity to take a step back, reflect and feel.
Nevertheless, this particular (and seemingly trivial) event triggered me and made me stop and take notice and so now I'm going to be brave and be real and vulnerable with you. I guess that the first concept I’d like to explore is this. Vulnerability and shame. As far as I'm concerned, nobody explains vulnerability and shame better than Brené Brown, but bear with me as I do my best to go there. Vulnerability is often seen as a weakness of character but really, vulnerability actually requires great strength. It takes courage to put yourself out there, to say you need help and to open yourself up to judgement and recrimination by individuals who feel that you should “just get over it”. But as Brené so beautifully puts it:
"Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness."
So I'm being vulnerable with you right now in saying that emotionally, things for me are a bit dicey at the moment. And here's the interesting thing I noticed recently when I openly shared my vulnerability - although there were/are lots of beautiful people in my corner, the natural response of some people was to subtly shame me for feeling like I'm struggling and to guilt me into avoiding dealing with the uncomfortable feelings I stirred up in them when I asked to be heard.
I'm sure you've noticed this too at some point, maybe with your own personally difficult experiences. For some people, listening to your hardships and seeing you so exposed and so raw can be hard for them to deal with and so they naturally want to try to make it better or try to fix things; maybe even try to talk you out of your “mood" or perspective and think of you as being "negative". When really, all you need is someone to listen and to say, "You know what? I can see this is hard for you right now. I don't have the answers but I'm going to sit with you so you're not alone". That's it. And that's empathy. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and seeing things from their perspective – not how you think things should be. Reserving judgement and just sitting with that person in their grief or hardship. And of course to do that, you need to go to that place of vulnerability inside of yourself.
This is something many people will be uncomfortable with or find hard to do – to empathise. But I want you to know that when you are made to feel shame, it's not really about you. So that's point number one which leads me to point number two - positivity and gratitude. Sometimes in your pain, the well-intentioned people in your life will try to get you to see the positives, look for the good, or remind you that you should feel grateful because some people “have it worse”.
Therapists refer to this phenomenon as "toxic positivity". The American Counseling Association defines toxic positivity as "the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations". It’s the idea that changing your perspective or mindset can change the situation and fix whatever it is you're going through.
When people shame you for feeling a certain way or, guilt you into minimising your experience by asking you to look for the silver lining or, make you feel inadequate by asking you to remember those worse off, this is likely to do way more harm than good. Because what they're really asking you to do is to deny your experience of grief and pain and push it way down. Denying these authentic emotions and experiences may work for a while. Perhaps the pain may be able to be masked with other things like burying yourself in work or turning to alcohol, but I promise you it will come up somehow, sometime. With a vengeance.
Social media is all pervasive. More so during this pandemic, where we rely on social media platforms to keep us connected. That can obviously be a good thing, but its presence often comes with the pressure to keep up appearances, or to portray the perfect image online. There’s also a need to field countless memes about positivity and gratitude and a “good vibes only” mentality.
Toxic positivity is dangerous. It has a huge impact on those of us already struggling with anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges. Toxic positivity makes it difficult to open up to family, friends and co-workers. And for those of us that need access to professional support, it makes it difficult to reach out. This scenario can intensify anxiety and depression, leading to more serious consequences.
I think as parents, it's important for us to model to our kids that there are no good or bad emotions. Challenges are great opportunities to reflect to children that sometimes feelings can change and even though they may see you struggle from time to time, authenticity is key. When kids see that adults have positive ways of coping, they learn to feel secure and develop their own resiliency tool kit. As a therapist, I regularly draw on my own life experiences to reflect, empathise and convey unconditional acceptance to my child clients and allow them a safe space for healing and growth.
So my take home message is this. Be brave. Choose vulnerability and connection. Don't be afraid to feel. Don't allow others to shame you or to minimise your experience. Remember that what you are going through is real and that your feelings are valid. Remember that you are not alone. The wonderful thing about putting yourself out there is that it gives others the courage to be able to do the same.
Sometimes circumstances are just ugly. That doesn't mean things can't and won't change - they just may take some time. Positive, healthy change during times of grief can't be hurried or forced with a change of perspective or a cup of tea. Sometimes, the only way out is through.
And as for the critics, Brené says it best:
"If you are not in the arena getting your ass kicked on occasion, I am not interested in or open to your feedback".
Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.
American Counseling Association – www.counseling.org