Why positive thinking may not always be positive
I recently came across a refreshingly honest interview with Whitney Goodman, the psychologist who coined the term toxic positivity.
Over the years, countless books, courses, and retreats have been focused on the topic of creating a happy life. They often say that being optimistic no matter what the circumstances will result in a favourable outcome. In the past, I have said that I believe there is a silver lining to every life challenge, but this doesn't mean we must be optimistic about every life event.
Way too often, when people see others or their dogs facing disease, bad luck, or tragedy, they say something like "Just be positive, and it will be fine” or "Don't be sad, it will be alright." Unfortunately, this societal norm of positivity is not always helpful, no matter how well-intended it may be.
When someone's dog faces a terminal disease, it is normal and okay to feel sad and heartbroken, and telling them not to be sad makes the situation even worse. If someone's house burned down, asking them to feel positive would be a tall order. Instead, acknowledging and validating the victim's feelings is more likely to be helpful.
For example, saying "I understand how you feel, it makes sense that you're sad, what can I do for you?" Or perhaps offering to take them out for dinner or on a weekend getaway might help them feel better. Sometimes flowers, a little treat, or chocolate may work better than words. Go with what feels right.
Saying that everything will be fine when people or dogs get a terminal diagnosis is strange and insensitive. No one can be sure that everything will be fine.
You might want to try this instead: "I will support you and be there for you so that you have the strength and energy to get better," which is both sincere and comforting.
The examples I have just given you are what Whitney Goodman calls toxic positivity situations where positive comments are either disingenuous or unrealistic. And while positive thinking, and doing our very best, is an integral part of solving life's challenges, contrived positivity may also lead to feelings of inadequacy, despair, failure, and fatigue.
Toxic positivity leads to the perception that emotions are divided into two groups, the negative and the positive. Anger, frustration, fear, and feeling overwhelmed are emotions, just the same as joy, happiness, and excitement. They would not be able to exist without each other, and they are all part of being human.
With the rise of social media, the trend appears to be portraying all aspects of life in a positive and often unrealistic way. This makes people feel like the lives of those they follow online are better and more successful than theirs. It is the digital version of toxic positivity.
But I have also noticed that people are becoming increasingly tired of these perfectly curated online personalities and their crystal blue water swimming pools, umbrellas, and glasses of champagne.
My sense is that more than ever, we are drawn toward honest and authentic people, just as our dogs are.
So, the next time someone asks you "How are you?" be honest and give a real answer, instead of the usual "I am fine." You will see how positive most people's reactions will be.
And if people in your life come to you with a concern, or share their life challenges, beware of responding with toxic positivity.