What is toxic positivity?
Let’s talk about toxic positivity – especially in the context of engaging with people who are grieving. Toxic positivity is rampant in person and in the online world – and seems to be even more prevalent when the world is more chaotic.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the term, you’ve no doubt encountered toxic positivity in your own life. Phrases like “it could be worse, be grateful for what you have!” or “look on the bright side!” or, more recently, “good vibes only!” would all fall into that category.
It’s not to say that things couldn’t be worse – they usually always can be – but it becomes toxic to spew these platitudes at the expense of feeling and expressing difficult emotions.
In other words, it’s not the thoughts or phrases themselves that are damaging, but how and when they’re used. As in all things, context is everything.
Why is it so pervasive?
Why toxic positivity is so damaging for those in grief
What to do when confronted with toxic positivity
Remember that acting positive is not always positive. And experiencing negative emotions does not mean you’re a negative person.
Releasing judgement of the situation, of what’s said, of yourself, is the most crucial thing. Not everyone is going to be equipped to hold space for your pain. When it’s an external source, remember there’s no need to justify or explain yourself, or try to change your experience. In fact, it’s the very struggle of trying to change reality that causes suffering, every time.
When someone throws a “just remember all the good times!” at you, it’s perfectly okay to let them know that you don’t need them to try to fix it or distract you from your pain. You can say “I do remember the good times, and right now I’m still in pain.” When someone tries to distract you by listing all the other things you should be grateful for, you can say “I just need to sit with this for a bit. Will you sit with me?” And when you are alone and you feel a wave of sadness coming and wonder if it will drown you, be still and let it come. Your painful emotions won’t kill you, and you will find in time that you know how to move with the waves without being overtaken.
It’s also normal to feel different things at the same time. As I’m writing this, I just finished watching the livestream of an awards ceremony where we distribute scholarships to young writers graduating from high school, in memory of my brother. I practiced watching my emotions throughout the ceremony – experiencing in succession (but almost simultaneously) the cavern of grief in my chest from my brother’s passing, the anxiety clenching my throat wondering if they’ll pronounce our last name correctly (they didn’t but it’s fine), the sting of tears as they listed my brother’s accomplishments, the heartburst of gratitude that these young men and women shared their own original writing with us, and the warm radiance of hope and anticipation of what they’ll accomplish on their own paths in the future.
Remember that releasing pain and practicing healing thoughts is not a betrayal or abandonment of your loved one. They aren’t in the pain. When in doubt, be still. Observe yourself, try to identify your thoughts, and try to describe your physical experience and emotional response (this is where working with a coach can help, by the way!). Bringing these to the surface gives them the light they need to heal and release in a healthy way.