How could being positive ever be toxic? Well, when it makes you feel pressure to squelch any emotions that could be seen as “negative,” like sadness, grief, or fear.
I’ve had my own struggles with toxic positivity. A student commented in an anonymous teaching evaluation fifteen or so years ago that I was “aggressively positive.” I was used to being noticed for my optimism, but the word “aggressively” caught my attention. While the rest of the student’s comments were positive or neutral, that one stuck with me and I turned it over in my mind for a long time. Being “aggressively positive” didn’t feel like a compliment.
I prided myself on not complaining, and over time my definition of complaining became so broad that it encompassed even neutral observations. I began to recognize in myself resistance to sadness and other emotions I saw as negative. When friends and students shared hard news with me, I noticed a strong impulse to reframe what they told me in a more positive way. Sometimes the reframings were productive, like when I helped a student who was fired from their job recognize it as an opportunity to find a job that was a better fit.
But other times, my reframing was a denial of the gravity of a situation; a student who was broken up with by their partner wasn’t helped by my reframing of it as a chance to explore what they wanted. What that student needed in the moment was for me to acknowledge their pain. It took me a long time to get comfortable with acknowledging pain.
I think my “aggressive positivity” grew out of a fear that people wouldn’t like me if I was negative, coupled with an inability to deal with my own complicated emotions. Dismissing all things negative—either by reframing them or simply ignoring them—allowed me to come across as ceaselessly positive and to deny that I ever felt anything upsetting. I used to laugh about my ability to put a positive spin on anything, but now I see it as a defense mechanism.
What I’ve learned is that reframing pain, sadness, and other emotions I used to see as negative into things I saw as positive—opportunities was my favorite—was just a way to avoid the difficulty of the “negative emotion.” I still felt pain and sadness, I just didn’t talk about it . . . and the less I talked about it, the harder it was to talk about it. My vocabulary around emotions became very limited.
Since my husband’s stroke, I’ve taken a different tact. I’ve chosen to embrace the hard parts of life with the same energy I bring to the easy parts. I’ve learned what it means to turn toward the emotions that used to frighten me. I’m expanding my vocabulary around emotions. When I have a challenging day, I can say I was sad, sorrowful, anxious, caught up in memories, reflective, grief stricken, heavy hearted, and more—and each of those choices means something distinct to me. None of those terms is bad or even negative—they are simply descriptions of normal emotional states.
All the time I find the topics I think and write about—disability, caregiving, death, and grief—to involve elements of both sadness and joy. In my “aggressively positive” days I would have acknowledged only the joy. Now I acknowledge the sadness, too. Ironically, what kept me from acknowledging the sadness in the past was fear of the sadness, but acknowledging it actually makes it feel less scary.
Going through the experience of my husband’s stroke, becoming his caregiver, and then being widowed has given me a new appreciation for the acknowledgment that sometimes life just sucks. And that’s normal.
I was telling a new acquaintance recently about my husband’s stroke and they said, “That sounds like it must have been intense. What was that like?” I appreciated their response because it both acknowledged the complexity of the situation and invited me to say more about it. They didn’t try to change the subject, lighten the mood, or put a positive spin on things.
I was with another new acquaintance recently when I unexpectedly began crying. Their response was perfect—they asked me what I needed. They didn’t seem shocked by my tears or act like there was anything wrong with me.
These two people demonstrate how simple it can be to normalize events and emotions that are, in fact, normal, but that we often shy away from.