“Good vibes only.”
“Just think positive.”
“Don’t be sad, be happy!”
Have you ever felt a slight twinge of irritation when hearing these statements? Well, you’re not alone.
Toxic positivity is the need to be positive, no matter what the situation. It shuns any sort of negative thinking, emotions or speech.
While well-intentioned, it is often short-sighted and more of a band-aid than a full-fledged treatment of the issue at hand.
In the movie Inside Out, where emotions are personified as characters, there is a tussle between emotions inside a little girl named Riley – which results in Sadness being shunned by Joy.
Eventually Joy realizes the importance of the role that Sadness plays in Riley’s life – for without sadness, we can’t communicate when we’re overwhelmed and in need of comfort.
It is a beautiful illustration of the purpose that so-called “negative” emotions play in our lives.
Shirzad Charmine, coach and founder of the Positive Intelligence practice, describes negative emotions like placing your hand on a hot stove – you need to feel the burn in order to take your hand off the stove, otherwise you would burn your hand off.
So negative emotions are useful and play an important role in our lives, and being positive all the time is something that is just not realistic.
“These are tough unprecedented times” – as most, if not all, marketing / spam emails will inform you, just in case you have been living in a bubble and hadn’t noticed.
But while stating the obvious as they desperately try to sell you a pandemic-style product, the thing they miss to highlight is what has drastically changed about the way we communicate.
Suddenly there is much more trauma in our lives. There is much more pain – for those who have had COVID, for those who haven’t, for those who have had loved ones go through it, for those who have lost loved ones, for those who have dealt with the after ripples – closed businesses, lost jobs, mental health issues, divorce.
However, we are often ill-equipped to be able to help each other through this, so toxic positivity has become our first line of defence.
The thinking is: if everyone smiles it will all be alright, and the problems will go away.
While the law of attraction definitely plays a strong role in attracting good things, it is no match for the unpredictability of COVID.
While there are many studies relating optimism with health and recovery from illness, we cannot, with 100% certainty say that a positive attitude will ensure complete recovery of ourselves or of a loved one.
It just doesn’t work that way, and so, there is a lot of suffering around us.
We tend to be uncomfortable witnessing the distress of others. Our first reaction is to try and make it stop. At a subliminal level, there is some subtle self-confidence we gain from the feeling that we can help others.
If we can give them a piece of advice and fix it, it makes us feel good.
Now let us start by saying, there is absolutely nothing wrong with helping others.
However, there are many times where this advice is not what the person needs. The person needs to feel what it is they are going through – and often more than anything they need to hear that what they’re feeling is valid.
In life coaching we are taught to with hold our desire to share our experiences, so that the conversation becomes a safe space for exploration in change. We are taught not to impose our experiences, feelings and worldviews on our clients.
Often our experiences and interpretations blind us to alternative views of a situation and keep us from being objective.
But this is something that need not just belong in the realm of life coaching.
Whether it is COVID or a bad relationship, or a toxic workplace, or a situation where the person feels “trapped”, we cannot ever fully know that our advice will be 100% effective.
Sometimes they have their own solutions – which are right for them.
Now, while we are well within our right to disagree with a stance or a decision on a purely personal level, it’s really not up to us to judge whether or not it is valid for that person. And that’s where empathy comes in.
Empathy is a topic often talked about, but rarely truly understood. It is on every top ten list for leaders, teamwork, communication and excellence in most if not all spheres of life.
At its core, it is the ability to understand or feel what someone else is feeling. But much like yoga or meditation or even leadership, it is something that requires ongoing practice.
A truly empathetic response can put yourself in the others’ shoes and feel comfortable letting them own their truth.
Here are some alternate things you can say to someone who is struggling:
AVOID: “Don’t be negative, you must think positive.”
TRY: “That sounds hard. Can I help in any way?”
AVOID “Good vibes only.”
TRY: “What you’re feeling is valid.”
AVOID: “Think of all those who have it worse.”
TRY: “It’s alright to feel this way, and there is help should you need it.”
AVOID: “Smile, crying won’t help.”
TRY: “It’s alright to express whatever you’re feeling.”
AVOID: “Stay positive.”
TRY: “This sounds tough. Do you want to talk about it? Or get your mind off it?”
AVOID: “You’ll feel better once you talk about it.”
TRY: “If you don’t want to talk that is completely ok.”
While there is something to be said about the fact that we can use physicality – a smile, for example – to change our emotions, it is important to linger in emotions long enough to organically move past them.
As we tread through the dynamics of interpersonal relationships during the pandemic, it’s increasingly important to build the capacity for empathy, over blanket positivity.
Because true positivity will come with the ability to experience negativity, process it in a healthy way, and move past it.
And if we can help others do that, we can truly change lives.