2021 Grateful 11: Toxic positivity

For some time, now, I’ve been moderating the prayers on an international prayer site. I don’t decide what goes up – I don’t have that much power – I simply check that the rules are followed – initials used instead of names, no political rants, no nastiness. Then I publish if they’re public and save if they’re private.

I’m in the habit of checking the site when I first log on in the morning. It’s a sobering way to start my day.

I might think I have problems. Who doesn’t? But what might seem to be a huge deal to me, might seem insignificant to someone else, and vice versa. Everything is relative.

I’ve been reading a lot on toxic positivity lately. And if that’s a new one on you, this is how psychotherapist Babita Spinelli defines it:

It’s a belief that no matter how painful a situation is or how difficult, an individual should maintain positivity and change their outlook to be happy or grateful.

I work hard at gratefulness and believe in the power of gratitude but I can’t say I’m always positive.

It’s all well and good staying positive, but if we do it at the expense of denying a genuine experience, then we’re, in fact, invalidating our feelings.

The Psychology Group defines it as

The excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.

While I might want to be more positive, it’s beyond me. So much for Murphy being an optimist. This branch of the family must have skipped a gene.

How do we know if we suffer from toxic positivity? Medical News Today offers some examples:

  1. Asserting after a catastrophe that “everything happens for a reason”
  2. Urging someone to focus on the positive aspects of a devastating loss
  3. Telling someone to get over their grief or suffering and focus on the good things in their life
  4. Labeling people who always appear positive or do not share their emotions as being stronger or more likable than others
  5. Urging people to thrive no matter what adversity they face, such as by telling people that they must use enforced time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic to develop new skills or improve their fitness
  6. Brushing off someone’s concerns by saying, “it could be worse”

Oh, look at #5. How many of us felt the effects of that one! As for #6, I say that a lot to myself.

I’m sure we all know people who are stuck in a negative groove seeing nothing but the bad in life. They’ve failed before they’ve tried and often don’t try because, sure, what’s the point. Everyone is wrong. Everything is wrong. The world is a rotten place. And I’m sure we all know their counterparts, too. Personally, I find the latter more annoying, less real. Which probably says something about me.

I enjoy a good wallow. If something (or a series of somethings) doesn’t go to plan, I need to feel miserable so that I can deal with it. I need to be left on my own to wallow. And when I’m done, I can pick up the pieces and move on. I can’t be doing with platitudes although I have a sneaking suspicion though that I’ve been guilty of waving the toxicity positivity banner. I’m sure there have been times when I’ve told someone other than myself that things could be worse. I’ve started more than a few sentences with ‘At least you didn’t….’  If I have done so to you, sincere apologies. I know better now.

The fix?

Stop trying to have a positive response to everything a person says.

Sounds easy but it ain’t. I have to rein myself in and put a check on the programmed answers.

This prayer thing has been good practice. I can’t email people in response and talk to them. I can’t sit opposite them over a cuppa and chat. I can’t pick up the phone and commiserate. Instead, I read their prayers for what they are – true accounts of what they feel is happening to them wrapped in a plea for help.

Loneliness. Isolation. Addiction. Poverty. Violence. Worry. Illness. It’s all there. These aren’t newspaper headlines. These are the prayers of normal people, living normal lives, trying to deal with normal things.

On occasion, I’m encouraged by the prayers of someone who seems to have it together and warmed by those who selflessly pray for the people reading their prayers. But not a day goes by that I’m not grateful my worries are my worries. Could I do without them? Certainly. But I wouldn’t trade them for any of what I read.

I don’t think that classifies as toxic positivity. It’s my reality.


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