The human experience is wide-ranging in emotion. We all know from our own personal experiences that life can swing really high by way of triumphant, joyous events, and swing incredibly low by way of personal loss, heartache, and feelings of depression. At any given point the people around you can be anywhere on the spectrum of human experience. How we treat folks in their highs and lows is an incredible opportunity to grow ourselves into developing more productive and healthier habits. Far too often, the habits we flex during others' very low moments are defined as toxic positivity. How can positivity be toxic, you ask? Good question...
I'm going to take you to a dark place for a moment, and it may be a moment that triggers some emotion in you if you've ever experienced anything similar. I want you to imagine your close friend or family member has unexpectedly passed away due to violence. You're lost in your emotion and can't make sense of how this could happen. Why would anyone want to take another person's life, but especially someone as wonderful as your loved one? There's so much confusion and dismay wrapped up in this unfortunate human experience. You retreat from social interactions for a bit to process and try to find the ground under your feet. When you're finally ready to share with friends and acquaintances what has happened as well as your feelings of loss and dismay (most probably looking for support and compassion) you're met with the below:
"Stay positive! Don't be sad, but remember the good times!"
"Everything happens for a reason! Praying!"
"God's in control...don't be sad! They're in heaven now!'
I know that scenario is extreme, but it happens more often than we like, and it has most assuredly happened to someone who's somewhere in or near your orbit. But let's take maybe a less drastic approach. Imagine you've lost your job. You're the breadwinner for your family. You've been employed with the same company for 12 years, and took this role right out of college. You've been laid off with no severance package. You feel devastated, as you were a hard-working, "company" employee who was there and available whenever they needed you and then some. You have no idea what you're going to do. You reach out to your friends and network to share your story,, ask them to keep you in mind as they come across open positions, and to share your resume. You're met with the below:
"Stay strong..something will come your way!"
"Don't worry, God's in control. He'll make a way!"
"Just focus on your family and don't stress too much. Everything will work out."
All of the above in both scenarios are toxic. But why? It's toxic because it's implying that the person who's going through the experience should feel a certain way. That implication can do two things: seem really disconnected from reality, and leave the person feeling like there's something wrong with them for not being positive. Toxic positivity is the denial, minimalization, and invalidation of the real human experience. It does the exact opposite of what you intend - it can actually make people feel worse for sharing their authentic feelings which have now been invalidated.
So many people run towards toxic positive statements because they don't know how to handle the situation and want to say or do something, anything, to make an impact. If that's your motivation for reaching out - pause. There are so many less toxic and more supportive statements you can make in someone's emotional time of need - statements that will actually support where they are on the spectrum of human experience, as well as represent yourself as a truly supportive, connected person, and not disconnected from reality.
Instead of "Stay strong!", trying saying, "This must be really hard, and I'm thinking of you."
Instead of "Everything happens for a reason!", try saying, "Sometimes life can feel senseless. I'm here to talk if you need me".
Instead of "Don't stress too much", try saying, "Setbacks are a part of growth and success...I'm here if you need me for the good and the bad."
Notice how each toxic positive statement is asserting your opinion of how the person should feel and in contrast each supportive statement is acknowledging a wide range of emotions that the person may be feeling. The toxic positive statements tell people how they should feel. The supportive statements tell people that you support how they feel. Do you see the difference?
You can practice removing toxic positivity and replacing with supportive statements in a myriad of scenarios. In this highly political climate where people are often at odds with one another, try inserting a supportive statement into a politicized discussion. See how rapidly the tone changes. People are experiencing a wide range of emotion with our political systems right now - including fear. Instead of arguing your own political stance with something like "You're only afraid because of what the media is putting out there", try using a supportive statement like, "Even though we all think and feel differently, we're in this together and I'm here for you." You're validating their emotion, acknowledging that you don't have to have the same opinion, and offer support regardless.
There are times in life when it's beneficial to look on the bright side of things for ourselves. But the darker areas of life are valid, are real, and will require support in order to process and eventually find our way out of the darkness. A positive mindset is crucial to your success - but that isn't the invalidation of all emotions. Toxic positivity is quite different than having a positive mindset. A positive mindset is one that allows for coping with negative emotions and working through those emotions for your own benefit and growth. Toxic positivity outright denies and invalidates the negative emotions.
As you finish out your week or month, I challenge you to find ways you can replace toxic positivity with a healthier, more supportive option. Your friends (and your own well-being!) will thank you later.