Today, we are talking about “Toxic Positivity”, a subject that really strikes a chord with our team at The MEND Project. For some of us, putting “toxic” and “positivity” together in a phrase seems inherently wrong. How can anything positive be toxic?
There are many times when toxic positivity is harmful. It usually happens as a result of our discomfort with or intolerance of anything negative, especially emotions. In today’s blog, we show you how toxic positivity plays a harmful role when listening to someone’s problems and especially for victims of abuse. You’ll learn what you can do instead if you are coming alongside someone.
What is Toxic Positivity?
Although there are truths in each of these responses, the message that is being conveyed by the listener is to put an end to the negative emotion. Negative emotions are uncomfortable for the person experiencing them and also for the person listening to and witnessing the speaker’s distress. Processing negative emotions, however, is important to our brains, bodies, and spirits for our overall well-being.
“Think of emotions as a closed circuit,” says Natalie Dattilo, a clinical psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “They have to go somewhere, so they come back up, like Whac-A-Mole.” (2) A healthy part of processing is through verbally sharing the negative experience or otherwise acknowledging it is real and allowing it to unfold naturally.
It’s important to understand that having a positive attitude and achieving a positive mindset are good things that can encourage wellness.
Facing Negative Emotions Is Essential to a Person's Wellbeing
Stressful emotions that do not get processed in a healthy manner wreak havoc on our brains and bodies, often resulting in long-term negative health consequences which manifest in a range of potential psychological or physical ailments.
What Causes People to be Toxically Positive?
It often comes from feeling uncomfortable with those emotions and not having the tools to respond empathically. In our culture, physical strength and mental acumen hold center stage for our success. Emotional IQ, on the other hand, has taken a back seat and has wrongly been labeled as a mainly female and negative trait. Many people, therefore, do not have a highly developed emotional IQ.
Emotional Intelligence is defined as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” Many of us are taught from a very young age – by our parents, coaches, educators, peers, and media – that it is bad to express or feel negative emotions. It is viewed as “weak” or “overly emotional,” especially if you are male. It’s nearly impossible to be empathic when you can’t deal with another or your own negative emotions.
Learning how to face and respond to tough stuff is key to enhancing emotional wherewithal.
In the context of abuse, toxic positivity can keep victims in dangerous environments or cut them off emotionally for a long time. A positive bias on every situation can set you up to ignore the severity of abuse and to remain in an abusive relationship which is likely to escalate in violence over time.(3)
When a victim’s positivity causes harm
Whatever the reason, a victim’s extreme positivity encourages them to completely ignore their negative feelings, making the positivity toxic. It turns them away from understanding their feelings and disconnects them from reality. Over time, it becomes increasingly hard for a victim to connect with what they are truly feeling, especially if it’s negative. The only way for a victim to heal is by getting in touch with what you’re feeling, even when it’s negative. Remaining numb to your emotions does not resolve them and instead traps them in your body, which can affect your physical and mental well-being. In domestic violence support groups or victim-centered therapy, an important (and often first) question in any session is, “How are you feeling?” At first, victims will reply with a trained, conditioned response which likely does not represent what they’re actually feeling. Over time, they learn to pay attention to their true feelings. The pain of the negative emotion is so strong in the beginning and the learned response of setting the pain aside through toxic positivity is hard to overcome. Re-learning how to get in touch with their true feelings rather than habitually trying to transform a negative into a positive emotion is a key turning point toward healing for victims. Over time, a victim learns to process their emotions – whether they are negative or positive – in a healthy way. This helps to get them back in touch with themselves and brings healing to them and their relationships.
The Type of Positivity to Avoid When Responding to Victims of Abuse
It’s important to remember that it takes great courage for victims to share with anyone what they have been experiencing within their relationship. When they do, they are extremely vulnerable, making toxic positivity particularly damaging to them. It tells them that their feelings are not valid. Those who are responding to victims might do this because they are uncomfortable with negative emotions or the intensity of abuse and are ignorant of helpful ways to respond. The best place to start is by recognizing how important it is to allow people to process negative emotions. Responders are not called to “fix” anything. The best response is attentive listening and compassionate words and phrases, such as, “I’m so sorry you’ve been going through this.” Or, “I can imagine how painful this is for you.” Then, simply allow them to share while listening compassionately with closed mouth and open eyes and ears.
If you are struggling within a high conflict, stressful and confusing relationship, or are a victim or survivor of abuse, this course is for you. Offered in manageable segments over 7 weeks, this interactive virtual curriculum will help you identify behaviors that harm, to recognize personal trauma, to learn how to respond and heal, and so much more. M3ND founder, Annette Oltmans, will lead a weekly teaching and Q&A time, and you will be provided with tools and resources to help you gain clarity and advance on your healing journey. Click the link to learn more. https://themendproject.com/i-want-to-help-someone-being-abused/gain-tools-to-respond-to-abuse/
Healing model of Compassion- https://themendproject.com/i-want-to-help-someone-being-abused/how-can-i-know-if-its-abuse/#the-victim
I don’t want virtual training… I’d like to see you offer “in-person” training. Frankly, I am tired of all this “virtual stuff”. PEOPLE need real connection, in-person training. (At least some of us do)
Thank you! I do enjoy what you are trying to accomplish but how about another alternative or two?
NO Kidding! We have done a few in person training but for organizations and so they are not open to the public. I’m not sure where you live (I know we have emailed previously so I’m sorry if I don’t remember and should), but we are happy to do in-person depending on location, size of training, etc. The virtual format allows for individuals to take part wherever they are – for example in the cohort we are beginning this week we have people across the US joining, a few from England, Canada and Romania. So, it has its benefits for sure. Prior to COVID, all of our trainings were in person. So, if you have a group or organization we can train, let me know. We are willing to do so in person. Stephanie (firstname.lastname@example.org)