“In the midst of the pandemic, reminders to stay upbeat are everywhere. Mottos, memes and maxims along with Twitter hashtags and Instagram accounts are devoted to preaching optimism as an approach to manage the epic uncertainty. But for some people, the relentless focus on the bright side can go too far.”
This is a quote from an article entitled “It’s OK not to be OK” by Kevyn Burger of the Star Tribune in Minnesota. At the Virtual FA Family Meeting, Dr. Megan Voss shared Burger’s article and shared how the current cultural pressure to maintain an upbeat and positive outlook in the face of a health crisis is 1) nothing new to FA families; and 2) can actually be detrimental to one’s wellbeing. This phenomenon is known as toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity is the excess and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. This results in denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.
We see manifestations of toxic positivity around us all the time. #Blessed. #Thankful. #Grateful. It’s the oversimplified message that it will all be okay if we just put on a smile and get through another day. As individuals who face challenges every day, these messages – even if well-intentioned – are rarely ever helpful.
When in shame, you feel like you have two choices: to be brave or to pretend everything is great all the time. According to leading shame researcher Brené Brown, shame is defined as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. Brown asserts that shame is neither helpful nor productive, and in fact, is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. Guilt and shame are often confused, but unlike guilt, which can be reflective and suggest a change in behavior, shame does not result in positive change.
Studies have shown that people experience less of the physiological signs of stress in the body when they are allowed to outwardly express their emotions. This can happen through words, facial expressions, or tears. If you cry or yell or express what feels bad or sad in a situation, you’re doing your body good by getting that stress out of the body. On the contrary, if you don’t express what you’re truly feeling, and you’re holding back words or tears, you’re housing that stress in your body body, which can lead to negative effects on your health.
If you aren’t free to express yourself, to be seen, to be heard, it’s impossible to relate to others. Research has shown that isolation is detrimental to health and wellbeing. There is an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke, dementia, and depression.
So, how can we safely combat isolation, especially now when many of us are in lockdown?
Dr. Voss’ advice for FA families during this time is to:
Cultivating a positive outlook can boost immunity, decrease stress, and even lengthen life spans (Burger). So, how do we embrace positivity but not end up spreading it in a toxic way to others or to ourselves?
You’re not expected to not feel sad or to just bounce out of an off mood. As Mary Jo Kreitzer, University of Minnesota, Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing, reminds us: “Someone who is experiencing overwhelming feelings of sadness can’t flip a switch or jolly their own way out of it. Toxic positivity refuses to acknowledge their challenges. If we ask others to be inauthentic, that doesn’t build resiliency and relationships.”
If you or someone you know is struggling, looking on the bright side may not be helpful. Trying to reason away negative feelings or demanding that you “Snap out of it!” likely won’t do any good and may, in fact, be harmful.
Instead, when someone expresses their emotions, listen, then acknowledge and validate their feelings. Instead of assuring them that everything will be OK, say, “I’m here for you, I care for you,” and ask how you can support them.
If someone feels overwhelmed, give them space to talk about their experience without judgment. You can say, “That sounds hard for you, tell me more about that.” Don’t tell them what you would do or feel in their place. Instead, ask them if they just need to vent or want advice.
If the negative feelings deepen or linger, don’t play therapist. People with persistent depressive feelings should be encouraged to see a physician and a mental health professional.