When positivity undermines connection

Positivity harms many with chronic illnesses because it can deny people their experience. A quick scroll through my friends’ social media accounts reveals meme after meme decrying “toxic positivity” – a form of gaslighting involving dismissing and invalidating genuine emotions. Looking on the bright side and focusing on the positive may be helpful in some situations, but fundamentally people feel safer when they know you have their back and can be vulnerable with their emotions.

One of many examples of memes shared by my friends recently on social media. Spot on, Adam.

I will admit to scrolling by posts against positivity, but here I am writing a blog about my recent experiences with it. In addition to being on the receiving end, lately, I have had to look in the mirror at my responses when people I love struggle. TL; DR; what matters most is what the person suffering needs, not what we need to quell our own discomfort in response to suffering.

My worldview does not involve a binary split of emotions into the negative and the positive. It does not entail suppressing difficult emotions. I much prefer to feel and learn from them. Processing emotions does not mean using positivity to wallpaper over our inner landscape.

There is a fine line between observing and feeling emotions as they arise and indulging in them, especially when there is fear. Feelings can take on a life of their own when fuelled by thoughts. Sometimes we need to be reminded that we cannot predict the future. But sometimes, we need to get a few paragraphs into whatever storyline we are stuck on before recentering on the present. Or, as philosopher and meditation teacher Sam Harris puts it, to simply begin again.

Being told to think positively denies the fact that we can feel multiple emotions simultaneously. Positivity and gratitude often are conflated when people are doling out advice. It’s as if someone can’t simultaneously be grateful for many aspects of life while still being unhappy about other features. Worse yet is being belittled by comparisons with people who might have it worse. I am deeply thankful for many things daily – this is my natural inclination. Negative feelings do not cancel out positive ones.

I need to improve at acknowledging my triggers around positivity. It’s tough to be told to be positive when I already have solid practices for when times are difficult. I get defensive when I feel like many years in therapy, and the hard-earned lessons therein, are invalidated. I feel like my trauma from chronic illness is being erased, and I am less seen. Still, I welcome thoughtful and gentle guidance. Learning to spot triggers before I act on them is something I strive for (and fail at) continually.

It helps to put myself in others’ shoes. I have a dear friend facing monumental health struggles and tragic losses in recent years. Because I love this person with all my might, I want to help carry his burden when I see him suffering. Here is the problem: most people don’t want to be fixed; they want to feel connected and seen. I triggered my friend with my desire to nurture, which only made us feel less connected because I was in fix-it mode, and he needed someone to let him be in his experience. What old wound underlies my pathological desire to help instead of sitting with another person’s suffering?

One might throw their hands up and say, how can we possibly know what each human needs during times of duress? How can we read people’s minds and adjust accordingly? How can we manage this when everyone has a unique set of triggers?

The answer is straightforward: you let people have their experience. One easy way is to show curiosity about where a person is. No mind reading or wallpapering with positivity is needed.

As Brene Brown says, “Because the truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” This simple and short video from Brown shows us how connection can be forged through empathy. I often return to this clip to remind myself how to be a good human. I fail at it all the time.

Four qualities of empathy: Perspective taking, recognizing someone’s perspective is their truth, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in other people, and communicating that.

My therapist has often said that anger and frustration – what many would call negative emotions – serve an important evolutionary role: these emotions are part of a vital life force that can propel us to find solutions to issues that plague us. In that sense, anger and frustration are like teachers – what are they telling us about what needs to change? Why would I want to deny myself the growth I experience from listening to my difficult emotions? When I get advice to be more positive, I hear: “You are making me uncomfortable, so can you please be more positive right now? I refer you again to Brene’s video above about how this approach shuts down feeling connected.

I mean no disrespect toward those who love me and have encouraged me lately to be more optimistic about my future. Sometimes this advice can be helpful when I am in the right place to receive it. I also recognize that my emotions and behavior lately have been extreme and outside of my typical range of variation. I own my triggers or at least vow to understand them better. I understand that no one makes me angry or upset; I do that on my own. Rest assured, I am processing the recent events of my life in ways that make me stronger and more resilient. More on that in another blog.

Rilke had it right in my book:

“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

Or, if you prefer some positivity:

“If life seems jolly rotten
There’s something you’ve forgotten
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing
When you’re feeling in the dumps
Don’t be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle, that’s the thing.”

2 thoughts on “When positivity undermines connection

  1. I don’t know how you manage to both boil it down to some simple take-away sentences and expound at the same time, always with wisdom and heart. I hope I haven’t contributed to the positivity. It’s a good call to check my empathy and compassion. Thank you for writing this.

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  2. Thank you for sharing this. I appreciate the guidance within your post as it is a reminder that when listening to another or when sharing my stories it is important to be- a thoughtful communicator, receptive, attentive, and to be grounded in the reality that we all ultimately have a private, solo experience in this life. It can be hard to do one or more of those in times of strong emotions. The difference between sympathy and empathy takes time to learn and also requires a retraining of ourselves in employing.

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