Toxic Positivity: The Bane of Every Recovery Group

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Positive thinking in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Some people find motivation through positive thinking and it helps power their success and ambition. What could be bad about that, right? Well, the problems can start with context and group dynamics. For one person, positivity is a mantra for moving forward. The fallacy becomes that positivity can be helpful for ANYONE.

How could positivity be bad? Toxic positivity happens when responding to your own or someone else’s suffering by dismisses emotions instead of affirming them. With support groups and interpersonal relationships, a key component of healthy life is being able to successful navigate and experience emotions. Often this means being able to deal with anger, remorse, grief, heartache and suffering – what some may describe as unpleasant emotions. It is important that individuals who are going trough troubling times be able to experience these emotions, which usually leads to a natural progression of acceptance. A person who attempts to wield positivity in the face of suffering is attempting to get the person to feel better. However, this type of behavior actually undercuts the importance of working through emotions and can ultimately cause repression of feelings.

Many do not understand how to engage others when they are suffering. Having a desire to make people feel better can often lead to an unfortunate side-effect: it shuts them down. Men in particular are extremely bad at this. Stop be if you have heard this:

“Shake it off”

“You’re okay! Stop crying”

“Not a big deal, don’t worry about it”

These types of statements are an attempt to get a person to stop experiencing an unpleasant emotion.

As an alternative, you can simply engage anyone that is suffering by offering support or just my lending an ear to their situation. As many who have worked within group dynamics know, being supportive is sometimes best exercised by being quiet! Simply listening to the problems of others allows that person to work through their issues and allow the emotional experience to resonate and eventually dissipate.

The root of toxic positivity may lie in the fact that many have a difficult time supporting others who are going through troubled emotions. It’s natural that a person who is listening to a friend grieving may want to try cheering them up rather than sitting with them while in their pain. Who exactly wants to willingly experience another’s suffering, right? There is, however, a benefit for the listener. Learning how be supportive in troubling times not only makes a person indispensable as a friend or confidant, it also raises one’s own emotional IQ – to really know what it means to be in touch with others going through rough times and be there when the waters are rough. Likewise, a person who can be emotionally available will also gain insight into learning how to engage their own emotions when inevitably trouble enters their lives.

We often have excuses for not engaging with our emotions: We’re too busy to deal with them, we don’t want to be distressed, we don’t want to upset others.  Negative feelings won’t go away unless you eventually deal with them. Acknowledge them, try to understand where they might be coming from, and think about what you can do to address them. Don’t prioritize more positive emotions over negative ones.

Stacy MizrahiStacy Mizrahi  is an IT consultant, speaker, instructional designer and advocate of meditation.