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  • Writer's pictureGreg Graber

Beware of Toxic Positivity

One of the most used phrases we all constantly utter to one another is "How are you"? It is somewhat paradoxical when we ask someone how they are feeling, because most of the time we don't really want a truthful response. We are happy when they respond with the proverbial "fine" or "good." This is usually our default response when we are asked this question as well. In our society, we perpetuate a constant "glorification of busy," in which we are too busy to care or deal with how we feel, let alone deal with how others feel.

Our attitudes about our feelings get passed to the children in our lives. Kids pick up on this by taking cues from the roles models in their lives- parents, teachers, coaches, youth leaders, etc. If we do not posses and exhibit healthy attitudes about our feelings, neither will our kids. The recent focus on SEL (social & emotional learning) in our schools gives hope that we will benefit as a society if we begin to treat emotional literacy and emotional education with the same importance as we do math, English, science, technology, and social studies. As I have said many times, a child can have an incredible intellect, but if that child cannot regulate his or her emotions, that child is is not likely to reach full potential and/or self-fulfillment.

We must first become "emotional scientists" and understand our own emotional landscape before we tackle the emotional landscapes of others. According to Dr. Marc Brackett, The Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we must first give ourselves "Permission to Feel"* (which is also the name of his outstanding book!). Most of us were taught that we have either "good feelings" and "bad feelings." From an early age, we have been told that we should always strive to be positive, in other words, to "get over it," "move on," or "quit being selfish."

Don't get me wrong. I truly believe that having an optimistic mindset has its advantages over pessimism. I think that when we have a choice, we should choose to be optimistic. However, it is important to note that we do not always have a choice. Making our minds up to deal with only positive feelings is harmful. When we repress or deny uncomfortable, unpleasant, or "negative" feelings, they only come back to harm us by potentially negatively effecting our minds and our bodies. Simply knowing that we cannot control our feelings is helpful. Instead of trying to control, repress, or deny them, we can learn to gently bring our awareness to them and then thoughtfully investigate and eventually deal with them.

Another helpful approach that we can have in dealing with our feelings and those of others is to beware of spreading toxic positivity. Characteristics of toxic positivity include:

1. suppressing or hiding the what we feel or the way we feel

2. automatically dismissing or not dealing with uncomfortable or unpleasant emotions

3. having guilt for seemingly negative feelings or emotions

4. marginalizing others' feelings by telling them to "get over it" or "be more positive"

5. trying to be a "devil's advocate" when it comes to others' feelings by saying things like "It's not that bad."

6. shaming others for feeling a certain way

There is no doubt that our intentions are usually in the right place when we act out or say some of the things mentioned above. However, they usually do more harm than good. Toxic positivity is an ineffective approach to force a happy or optimistic state in a situation which denies or invalidates a person of an emotional experience.

Instead of trying to force someone to be happy or optimistic, it is more beneficial to validate their feelings. This is often accomplished by simply listening to them. Actually mean it the next time you ask someone "how are you"? Take the time to mindfully stop and listen to them. If you must respond to something they are saying, consider these examples:

1. Instead of "Everything happens for a reason." Try something like: "It is ok to feel this way sometimes when things don't go as hoped."

2. Instead of "You are fortunate. It could be worse." Try something like: 'Sometimes bad things happen to us. I understand. How can I help"?

3. Instead of "Always look at the positive side." Try Something like: "This is a difficult situation. I see you are struggling with it. Let me know if you need my support."

4. Instead of "Failure is not an option." Try something like: "There is no growth without setbacks. It is not a failure if there is a lesson learned."

*Note: I highly recommend checking out Brackett's "RULER" approach to social and emotional learning. It may be found in his book Permission to Feel.

Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, the current Head of Middle School at Lausanne Collegiate School, will begin his tenure as the school's Director of SEL & Mindfulness in June. His website is

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