Traveling Man: Burning toxic positivity

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Imagine a seesaw, or a teeter totter.

When two people sit at each side and there’s an uneven weight distribution you see the fluctuations pretty easily. And if you’re like me and you went on the teeter totter with your sister who’s six years older than you and much bigger than you, you probably remember getting stuck at the top and freaking out often. I have no idea how I don’t have a fear of heights.

I digress.

I think of this image when I think about how we talk about coping with stress. It’s not easy finding the balance between those silverlinings and allowing reality to suck.

I’d like to reiterated that there is no right or wrong way to figuring out what you need, but there are healthier options. There are more sustainable approaches that can hold space for life.

As a coach, I try really hard to work from a place of radical acceptance, which has roots in unconditional positive regard – a theory founded by psychologist Carl Rogers. I’ve actually always tried to lead from this space, but it’s been the past two or three years that I’ve been able to connect my beliefs to a framework.

Before we continue, for reference, I want to share some definitions:

radical acceptance: the ability to accept situations that are outside of your control without judging them, which in turn reduces the suffering that is caused by them.

unconditional positive regard: caring for the client as a separate person, with permission to have their own feelings, their own experiences

These ideas allow for life experiences to matter, regardless if those experiences are understood. It also allows for the positive and the negative events, emotions and thoughts to co-exist.

When we let ourselves sit with those emotions – good or bad, we give ourselves permission to pause and ask harder questions so we can actually move forward with a real plan.

Personally, this is something that I’ve been really working on hard this year. As other coaches and trainers and leaders and mentors will attest, it’s easy to guide someone else, but it can be hard to take your own advice.

So, what is toxic positivity?

Denying people the authentic support that they need to cope with what they are facing by emphasizing positive thinking for all situations.

There is a time and place to highlight the positives so that you can keep moving forward instead of dwelling on the negatives. But, sometimes you just can’t find positives in a situation – and that’s ok too.

A few months ago, I was speaking with a client about trauma and we discussed how this is a topic where others will often try to search for positives. Her and I have had different life experiences, but there are some situations that have similarities. Throughout our work we’d discuss her writing and how to let health coaching flow into it so she could challenge ideas that she had. Her weekly poetry updates and texts in between were amazing. She has a gift.

One of our conversations turned into poems for both of us.

This is what I wrote:

Those silver lining people piss me off

They try to see the good when there’s nothing good about making things more complicated than they need to be

They tell me imagine who I would be if I didn’t experience my trauma

As though there’s ownership that I have to take

So I do

If I didn’t experience my trauma I would trust people more confidently, I would be pickier with my trust

It’s not a credit card, but it feels like that all the time

I wouldn’t give away the best part of me expecting that others know how to treat something fragile like glass

I know they say that that gold can fill the cracks in broken pottery, but what would happen if it didn’t break to begin with?

Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about this because of a few posts I saw on social media that perpetuate this idea and mask it as a “mindset shift”. Mindset shifts are very real in coaching and goal setting as well as in life when we’re trying to get through our days (think of what’s in your control versus what’s out of it). When we lean into toxic positivity it negates our reality and lived experiences. It’s easy to find others who have had it worse – or to make this up in our heads. Labeling it as a mindset shift can almost be harmful because there will be times that you can’t live up to it and for some that feels like failure too. The inability to be positive is just as awful of a feeling as the stuckness that can come with holding onto negativity.

You’re not failing if you have bad days. It’s not that you don’t want it – whatever it is – bad enough, you can outgrow ideas or goals and timing can be wrong.

You can face the negative, embrace the positive and allow them to co-exist without being consumed.