The Dark Side of Bright Siding
Toxic Positivity is Negative
If you missed last week’s piece, you can find it here: “Can I Help You in Some Way?” Man’s Question Saves 160+ Lives.
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Today’s piece is inspired by a reader who suggested I write about the “practice gratitude business that makes me roll my eyes.” This topic was on my very long list, but her email bumped it to the top.
Brandi, this one is dedicated to you.
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The Dark Side of Bright Siding
You’re relatively anxious, so it’s often hard to shrug off the small things. Today, you are in a terrible mood. Just viciously agitated. Your tolerance level for the small things is below any discernible measure.
Why doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except that everyone should steer clear of you and leave you the F alone, which is hard when you must leave your house and enter the world.
Inevitably, you will encounter someone who tries to make you feel better using a tactic that does the opposite.
“No bad days!” Some cheerful person tells you.
“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” a jovial stranger bellows, not knowing your beliefs.
“Don’t worry about it. Tomorrow’s another day!” A peppy jogger as she sprints by.
“It could be worse. You could have cancer.” Your breezy co-worker.
“Good vibes only!” The chipper barista.
This approach is known as Toxic Positivity, a coping mechanism for people who struggle to feel negative emotions. Toxic positivity rejects all difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful and often falsely optimistic facade. It takes positive thinking to an overgeneralized extreme. While stressing positivity, it also denies human emotions.
People who practice Toxic Positivity falsely believe negative emotions are wrong because they feel bad.
Instead of feeling what they feel, they opt out, cultivating positivity by looking at the bright side. Worse, they expect others to follow suit. They don’t just dislike their negative feelings; they don’t like anyone’s, so they wind up “bright siding” (“Look on the bright side!) those pulling them down.
The truth is that negative emotions aren’t bad. They’re essential and often valuable.
People who demand you suppress your negative feelings don’t understand emotions. After all, we cannot numb a single emotion. That’s not how it works. If it did, do you think I’d be anxious? Hell no.
When it comes to emotions, it’s all or none.
Let’s say you’re winning a huge award, and your spouse leaves you the night of the ceremony. While you can appear grateful and joyous at the ceremony, you can’t help but feel the terrible emotions clawing up the side of the positive one.
When someone “bright sides” you, they often mean well, but by dismissing your distress, they are silencing you. True growth comes from feeling discomfort and distress, processing it, and learning valuable lessons. When someone tells you to feel something else, they ask you to remain in place at the expense of growing, learning, and changing.
Acts of love require allowing people to feel how they do without demanding they change or feel differently so that you are comfortable being with them. It’s not an act of love to tell someone to feel differently than they do.
When we avoid suffering, we avoid growing. When someone demands happiness at all times, they are not living in reality; they are living in avoidance, and there is nothing more emotionally damaging to a person than not facing what’s real.
What you feel: good, bad, and ugly, expresses your authenticity and genuine self. If someone wants to know you, they must be comfortable with the full spectrum of your emotions.
People in pain need empathy. Those who offer false reassurance instead of responding with empathy are uncomfortable with negative emotions. They are trying to mastermind the world to accommodate their fear of facing distress by coating the world in bromides. This creates distance.
Telling distressed friends everything will be fine sends the message that how they feel isn’t okay. Denying a distressed person’s reality leaves them feeling alone and disconnected. It stops them from communicating.
Emotional pain is deep. Toxic positivity is shallow. It’s false to reassure someone who’s genuinely suffering with platitudes. It creates disconnection and prevents real bonds from forming. When we’re suffering, we need our loved ones to sit with us and accept our pain as valid, even when it feels unpleasant.
Tabitha Kirkland, a psychologist and associate teaching professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Psychology, has this to say:
“Toxic positivity is a way of responding to your own or someone else’s suffering that comes across as a lack of empathy. It dismisses emotions instead of affirming them and could come from a place of discomfort.”
People who respond to other people’s pain with false reassurance aren’t bad. They don’t know what to say, or they feel uncomfortable and want that feeling inside them to disappear. The unpleasant feelings often do go away because the bright-sider shuts the other person down.
People who practice Toxic Positivity deny themselves the chance to feel the full spectrum of their emotions and deprive themselves of opportunities to connect deeply with others by authentically supporting them and allowing themselves to grow and change.
The irony of toxic positivity is that it’s negative.
Genuinely positive people don’t force themselves or others to have a consistently positive outlook. They allow for actual feelings and work to find optimism in the face of their hardship.
Wondering where you fall? Here are some questions to ask yourself to discover whether you are enforcing toxic positivity on yourself and/or others.
1. Do you brush off problems rather than face them?
2. Do you hide your true feelings behind platitudes and aphoristic quotes about feeling good?
3. Do you tend to minimize other people’s emotions when you feel uncomfortable?
4. Do you shame other people when they aren’t being positive?
If you recognize yourself here as someone who falls into the camp of toxic positivity, you might use this behavior as a coping mechanism. But putting a positive spin on every complex emotion as a way to cope only makes it more difficult to cope with challenging emotions properly.
Here are some ways to work on your discomfort with negative feelings:
1 Practice feeling your emotions. Your emotions help you understand what you want, don’t want, need, or don’t need. There are no wrong or right emotions. When feeling something unpleasant, take ten minutes to write until you land on the emotions that you feel.
2. Don’t search for a silver lining. You don’t need to fix people. While it’s really difficult to sit with someone in their distress and not jump in to make it better, it will bring you closer to the other person if you can listen and acknowledge the painful experience for what it is without trying to sugarcoat or change it.
3. When something upsets you, don’t rush to distract yourself. Try and feel your upset. If you can feel it for one minute—you’re going places!
4. Recognize when you’re being a toxically positive person in real-time. It’s okay to say something that isn’t helpful if you can catch it in real-time and say, “I’m sorry. That’s not helpful. Let me try again…”
5. Learn to develop your empathy. Practice putting yourself in other people’s shoes. Practice with fictional characters on tv, in movies and books. Once there, ask yourself what you’d want someone to say to you.
Original art for How to Live by Edwina White
Here are some things to say to others when their emotions make you uncomfortable and to yourself when you want to flee from your enforced happiness.
“I know how hard this is for you. Can you describe how you’re feeling?”
“That sounds difficult. Do you want to tell me more?”
“Your feelings matter to me. I’m sorry you’re struggling.”
And, if you are on the receiving end of someone else’s toxic positivity, here are some things you can say in response. (Try and be gracious, and avoid shaming the other person.)
When I’m upset, it helps me process my feelings to talk it through.
I recognize that my sadness isn’t permanent; all emotions are temporary, but I need to feel mine to move through it.
Feeling my emotions helps me to feel better.
Where do you fall on the spectrum of toxic positivity? Let me know in the comments.
And Brandi, how’d I do?
Until next week, I am...
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