One of my second cousins mentioned to some of us at a family get-together that she still felt sad about the divorce she had gone through two years ago. This was understandable because the process had been drawn out and bitter for both her and her ex-husband. We offered our emotional support and allowed her to continue venting her deep feelings.
A cousin offered some trite comments. I remember hearing her say “Things could have been a lot worse, aunt Edna went through even more conflict. We should remember that the Lord never gives us more than we can handle.” This caused the second cousin to sob and excuse herself from the conversation group. The rest of us were left speechless after witnessing such insensitivity.
I’m sure most of us know someone who exudes toxic positivity. Such people do so for their own reasons. The main problem with toxic positivity is that it denigrates and invalidates our feelings and suffering. This frequently makes us feel even worse. If we disagree with the toxic assessment, we might be called a “Debby Downer” or a “Negative Ned” and that we should see the silver lining that has been offered.
A somewhat similar situation happened to me several years ago when my now former boyfriend packed his bags and left town without notifying anyone–including his employer. He never left any explanation nor got in touch with any of his friends nor me afterwards. This left everyone confused and I was devastated. One of my friends encouraged me to express my grief and she promised to just listen. At one point, she stated that she knew things would get better because “there are plenty of fish in the sea–this was meant to be.”
This reply blew me away. It seemed like she had not actually been listening carefully. Perhaps she wanted to wrap the scenario in a neat little package and discard it in a dumpster. In the end, I felt like I had lost my friend in addition to my other serious loss. This only caused more confusion, disappointment, and suffering. A lengthy period of cynicism about other people ensued until this attitude slowly faded away on its own.
The take-away is that every person experiences difficult situations and emotions. We aren’t automatons, we are living, breathing humans. Accusations of people being Debby Downers and Negative Neds who should just paste a smile on their faces are not healthy reactions. In such instances, it is important to forget about positivity for awhile, then become aware of the toxic positivity coming our way or that which we, ourselves harbor. This is not to say we should become pessimistic; it means to try being realistic.
There has been an important result of having endured toxic positivity in one form or another. That is, I’ve become more discerning about associating with people who insist upon “good vibes only”. Such unwarranted, excessive positivity is harmful. Of course a certain amount of optimism and healthy positivity helps us weather difficult circumstances with encouragement and hopefulness. However when we force ourselves or when someone else encourages us to always be positive, we run the great risk of going into denial and falling victim to our own toxic positivity.
Excessive positivity crowds out our genuine concerns and invalidates our actual experiences. Toxic positivity clouds our judgment, making it more difficult to figure out the root causes of our problems. At the very least, fake positivity means lost time in arriving at a satisfying solution. We are all unique and experience difficulty in different ways. Saying some people have it worse, doesn’t actually address the problem; it only postpones the inner work we need to do.
Sometimes negative emotions are like alarm bells that are telling us to take a break and take care of ourselves. When we honor our emotions and feelings–negative and positive–we become more self-aware and strong.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes 20th century radio advice show host, Bernard Meltzer. “Before you speak, ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.”