Three Simple Methods to Undermine Toxic Positivity
“Oh my gosh! A C isn’t a big deal! You still passed!”
I remember her shouty, high-pitched voice like it was yesterday. We weren’t friends, but I knew her name. Somehow she overheard my heartache over this disappointing mark and felt it was her role to show up for me. Where I needed to be heard, she needed to be positive.
Toxic positivity is robbing our hearts of the ability to feel our feelings. There is a time and place for hopeful encouragement, but when a heart lays raw before you with vulnerability, jabbing a foam finger and yelling, “Go team!” will get you ejected from the game before halftime.
When we feel pain or disappointment, it is not our job to comfort those around us. It is our job and highest calling to learn how to sit with ourselves. To know our feelings by name, and to give them a chance to exist. Just as the woman above meant well by her kind words, she also steamrolled her own discomfort. Forget that she wasn’t invited to the conversation. Her interjection stopped all other responses. As if nothing else needed to be said; this woman encouraged the sad person. Now we as a group can move on to the next thing.
Moving on is the goal of toxic positivity.
We recognize the platitudes like a tiger’s stripes and yet, we still struggle to let the well-intentioned “encouragement” pass by without adding to our pain.
In a world where anyone can hashtag their way into Instagram influencer status, we must know how to recognize the true skills of active listening and reframing. Knowing how to correct the overgeneralized happy vibes allows us freedom to be human. That does not mean we must feel sad all the time; it means we must have the chance to feel sad.
Active Listening Is…
Anytime you are choosing to show up for someone, no matter their situation, your role is as an observer. If your goal is to encourage them, then listen.
My favorite way to describe this is from the Pixar movie, “Inside Out.” I think about it daily! When the imaginary best friend Bing Bong loses his imaginary best friend rocket ship, the character named Joy insists on moving quickly to the next thing. There is urgency in their goal, and they do not have a moment to lose. But the character named Sadness sees a moment to sit and reflect. She waits at Bing Bong’s side while he cries, making only small remarks along the lines of: “I bet that feels really sad,” and “It sounds like you really loved your time together.”
After a few moments, Bing Bong is still grieving… but now he is ready to stand. It only takes a few moments of intention, silence, and brief paraphrasing to show up for others.
Active Listening Is Not…
- Dismissive — "Don't worry."
- Judgmental — "That can't be true."
- Directive — "You should..."
This is where the toxic positivity really shines like the broken rainbow that it is. Toxic positivity is a dark cloud over what should be a beacon of hope and promise. Reframing is a skill best wielded by trained professionals. The premise is beginning to see your situation from another perspective, ideally coming to a more hopeful conclusion or course of action.
Reframing is introduced within the timing of the person with the issue, not when the encourager feels ready to encourage. Again, this is a matter of allowing discomfort with a circumstance to remain. Sometimes our thoughts become shaken and disorganized, and it will help to offer a grounding thought.
“Reframing is a way that we can alter our perceptions of stressors and, thus, relieve significant amounts of stress and create a more positive life before actually making any changes in our circumstances.” Elizabeth Scott, MS
What we want to identify in reframing is the thinking patterns that cause our stressors to amplify. Once they are noticed and allowed to breathe, we can move into challenging those thoughts with simple changes to our word choice. This becomes our personal practice over time. Attempting to reframe the thoughts of another person in the middle of their crisis will lead to mistrust. It is unlikely that someone will receive your positive reframing, even though they want to feel better. Feeling better doesn’t come from ignoring how you feel.
Reframing Is Not…
- Distraction — “Let’s get a drink!”
- Minimizing — “At least…”
- Hijacking — “I know exactly how you feel. One time…”
How to Handle the Arrows
Now that we can recognize toxic positivity, how do we avoid being hit when a well-intentioned archer takes aim with their good vibes? Most people mean no harm, so lower your own weapons and defenses. Assuming you want to preserve the relationship, read on.
- Ask for silence.
When a person is uncomfortable, they will do almost anything to avoid feeling awkward. Make it awkward — tell them to be quiet. By simply asking them to stop talking and sit with you, you are asking them to also feel. It’s hard and necessary. “Can you just sit quietly with me, please?” If they cannot, you will know right away. Make a mental note that this person is not your inner circle when sorrow surfaces. That’s okay.
- Disagree without dismissal.
It is your right to say, “Actually, that’s not how I feel.” Correct the assumptions but do not feel obligated to start a debate or change anyone’s mind. Relating is a way we deepen our connections, but if they’re built on a false premise, what then of the connection?
- Tell your story.
If you are in the state of mind to share, then share. When a person has handled your request for silence and the true declaration of what you feel, then the window is open. This is a person who can handle hearing you and holding space for you. Speaking and sharing your story is lifegiving; storytelling is a change agent. As you speak, you will uncover things that reframe your thoughts even as the words leave your mouth. This is victory over toxic positivity; this is foundational revelation for when you truly are ready to move forward with yourself (not on or away from the problem).
None of these steps are about raising our own bow and starting a war. This is simply a non-violent way of identifying what we need and learning how to ask for it. Toxic positivity assumes we all need the same thing — good vibes and high smiles. But we don’t even know what we need right away, especially when things are difficult.
Learn to hear and appreciate your own voice. The initial framework of your crisis may be adding to the big emotions, but telling your story allows you to see yourself from another light. You’re not pretending everything is wonderful. You are hearing yourself and giving yourself the benefit of the doubt instead of repeating the dismissive mantras. Allow the “yet” of growth to show up on your behalf.
Mandy Capehart is a certified grief and life coach, and creator of The Restorative Grief Project. The Restorative Grief Project is an online community focusing on one another’s stories and new methodologies for grief, creating a safe environment for our souls to heal and our spirits to be revived. Registration is currently closed, but you can join the waitlist at www.MandyCapehart.com/grief.