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Toxic positivity sounds like:
“Be thankful for what you have!”
“Other people have it worse, you know!”
“Why can’t you just let it go? It will get better.”
“Don’t be so sensitive, It’s not that bad!”
We’ve all heard these things. And sometimes it’s perfectly appropriate. You know, maybe after you’ve been talking with a friend for a while. Or you’ve problem-solved and been heard. However, if this is the GO-TO response from people when you share a pain point in your life you are experiencing toxic positivity.
I’ll give you my own personal definition of what toxic positivity is:
Your pain makes me uncomfortable, so please stop. I do not want to hear it, it’s not about me, and I do not want to spend my time helping you in a meaningful way. So just shut up.-Me. bitches.
Toxic positivity is when people use positive words to dismiss your valid feelings. It’s those pretty quotes about life you see all over social media that make you want to scream because of how fucking ludicrous they are. This type of positivity is harmful. Because guess what?
Sometimes life sucks.
When I was pregnant with my youngest child we learned that he had a hole in his heart. (He is one of the lucky ones, it closed up before birth.) It was not super serious, but it was enough to really upset me. The trauma of losing my first pregnancy hadn’t gone away, his older brother being the baby from hell, and this new diagnosis sent my anxiety into overdrive. Between the heart scare, chasing a difficult 1-year-old, the holidays, and moving to a different state and having our stuff delayed I was not a happy camper. It was brutal to have every person around me INSIST I be happy when I just needed some time to wallow. I needed to work through my negative emotions so I wouldn’t become resentful. I just needed someone to fucking LISTEN. And maybe say “That sucks. I’m sorry.”
Instead, I was bombarded with ‘nice words’ and demands that I ‘stop worrying’ and ‘just be happy’. Want to know what happened? It made things worse for me. Now I had to add in guilt because I was bringing other people down, and intense anger at those around me for refusing to acknowledge that it was not the right time for me to be happy and that it was ok for me to work through the not-pretty emotions. I believe my go-to phrase became:
“Yeah! My baby has a hole in his heart… but let’s go to the mall!”
Why is it so hard to let other people feel shit?
I’m no angel here either. I tend to try and micromanage my kids’ emotions when I just can’t grasp why they are so upset. And yeah, I don’t want to spend a bunch of time talking about why the cup made them cry. But you know what? They’re upset. Me telling them in a cheery voice that ‘some kids don’t have cups and they should be thankful’ doesn’t do shit aside from suggesting to them that they should hide their feelings for the comfort of others. It may seem trivial to me, but it’s not to them. So I remind myself that I do not get to choose how they feel. I don’t have to engage, but I also don’t get to change their attitude just because it’s inconvenient for me.
Take that however you want, but remember… you don’t get to choose how other people feel. And no one gets to choose how YOU feel. Yeah, I get it, it’s frustrating to deal with someone when they’re in a negative state. But pestering them to ‘be happy’ just because YOU don’t want to deal with it won’t actually fix anything.
‘Happy’ is not the norm
Say whaaaat?! Yeah, it’s true. ‘Happy’ is not our default state of mind. Get this, it’s a REWARD for when we do something right. It’s our body and our brain telling us ‘Do more of X’. So, no. I do not always have to be happy. As a matter of fact, I’m usually NOT happy. However, I’m always TRYING to be happy. I’m doing various things to obtain that elusive feeling every. single, day. But when shit hits the fan, suggesting I choose to be happy is fucking ludicrous. Why the hell should I try to make myself feel something other than pain or frustration? If I just decided to be happy no matter what, I lose all motivation to improve my situation. Because someone else says to? I call bullshit.
A problem is a problem no matter how small
Shit happens, life isn’t fair, and if something is bothering you, it deserves attention. Guys, some people run marathons and some people can only run down the street, but they both ran. Am I saying that you should whine about a broken fingernail while your neighbor’s house burns down? No. But your fingernail still needs to be fixed regardless. The last thing anyone needs is to be told that their shit doesn’t matter. Because it does. It might be further back in the line of priorities, but it’s still there.
Chances are if a person is telling you that your shit doesn’t matter they’re going to turn around and spill their guts about something equally as trivial as soon as you relent. The difference between the proverbial ‘you’ and ‘them’ is that someone who doesn’t practice the art of toxic positivity is going to A. Listen and B. acknowledge their pain. It’s this weird thing called ’empathy’.
How you can combat toxic positivity
Unfortunately, you cannot change people or how they act. Literally the ONLY thing you have control over in this world is your own mindset and attitude. Because ya know, life is not fair. So when you’re seeking compassion and support from someone only to be met with the wall of toxic positivity I recommend the following. Preferably in this order.
Remember you are not a bad person for not being ‘Happy’
The very first response you might have to toxic positivity is feeling like a shitbag. YOU ARE NOT A SHITBAG. Bad things, inconvenient things, and even unbelievable things happen to us on a daily basis. And you’re going to react. Reacting to things in your life does not make you an assbag.
Don’t fall into the trap
I get it. I’m a people pleaser. My first instinct when someone positives me into a hole is to give up and agree. All while hiding how I feel and creating a whole mess of buried emotional shit. If it’s not someone you can challenge; disengage. Walk away. And move on to the next step.
Find someone else
Find someone who will listen to you. For real. If the person you initially run to hits you with all the ‘Shut up and just be happy’ turn elsewhere. I can tell you from personal experience that this is a game-changer. I’m going to say something that might anger people here: your family does not have to be your go-to. We often get stuck in this belief that we have to go to the people we’re related to before anyone else. We don’t. Sometimes friends are where you need to go. The people you CHOOSE. If you feel like you have no one? That’s where the next step comes in.
Go to Therapy
It’s no secret I love therapy. LOVE IT. It was after the heart incident with kid 2, that I found my current therapist. Sometimes issues last longer than a conversation. Or even the best listener in your life can’t give you what you need. That is A-OK. A therapist can. A therapist is a person that is focused on YOU. Helping YOU. and hearing YOU. This is a professional that can help you bridge that gap when you have been toxic positivity-ed onto an island. And the best part? They take no shit.
I love my therapist. Not only does she challenge me, but she’ll flat out say ‘I’m sorry, that sucks.’ when it’s something I just need to deal with. Not everything can be someone else’s fault. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck.
This is a fine line. Because sometimes we need to question WHY and WHERE the toxic positivity is coming from. Do you know the offender is going through some shit? Cut them some slack. Be cognizant of the person. Are you complaining about your kid’s tantrums when you know they’re struggling with infertility? I can tell you all day that people need to be more empathetic… but so do you.
Toxic positivity won’t go away unless we actively work on it
We have all participated in this phenomenon. ALL OF US. We need to tackle it together. Acknowledge when we are the perpetrators and call it out when we can. I may be biased, but I think is the most important with our kids. How can we claim that the next generation is the problem when we’re refusing to acknowledge our peers’ problems? How can we teach children empathy when we don’t practice it ourselves?
This is one of those things that we have to acknowledge exists in the first place. And then we can make a change for the better. We have to look beyond just ourselves for a second. But I ask you, how can it possibly be bad to hear out another person? Don’t you want people to listen to you? It’s just one of those things.
Have you ever experienced toxic positivity? How did you deal with it? What will you do next time you encounter it? You know, like tomorrow.