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Mindset Monday: Yes, Too Much Positivity Can be Toxic

When I hit 40, I changed my life. It was a convergence of a number of painful circumstances that forced me into it, but mostly I was tired of being miserable. I started to study happy people and began to practice the qualities I saw in them: optimism, generosity, gratitude, patience, kindness. I got happier—and got fascinated by the power of the positive emotions to uplift us and connect us more deeply to ourselves, other people and life itself. I learned that it is possible to change our mindsets for the better, which led me to the books I wrote and the career I now have. I trained in the concept of an asset focus—meaning looking for what is right, even in what seems to be wrong. Along the way, the field of positive psychology emerged, with researchers confirming what I had discovered for myself. To say I am a fan of cultivating the positive is beyond an understatement.

That’s why I’ve been so concerned recently about the use of positivity to minimize, denigrate, and/or deny the pain and suffering of anyone, especially BIPOCs. I hear of people, especially white women, ignoring difficult realities because they don’t want to bring themselves “down,” (only those with white privilege even have this choice) or attacking marginalized people for their negativity. It hurts me to even type these words.

Suffering is real, oppression is real, injustice is real. Failure to acknowledge that does true harm. Not to mention we don’t have any right to tell anyone else how to be or to police their emotions. That’s why, when I saw this poster by Ana @psychologyandlove, I knew I had to write about this toxic thinking. She says it better than I can.

I’d just like to add one other thought. Our ability to generate the positive emotions is not an “instead of” experience—instead of experiencing pain, fear, sadness, grief, guilt, shame, anger…the full range of the “negative” emotions. The negative emotions are appropriate responses to the wide range of suffering life can serve up. We are meant to feel it all, positive and negative, the full catastrophe, as author Jon Kabat-Zinn calls it.

About a decade ago, a psychologist named Barbara Fredrickson asked a simple yet profound question: what are the positive emotions for? Her research and that of many others points to the following answer: through the release of feel good hormones, to help us recover from the negative emotions, to bring our body/minds/spirits out of fight/flight/freeze and back to a relaxed state. They are meant as a recovery strategy, not an emotional bypass.

Those of us who have been so wounded and traumatized that it is very challenging to access this recovery strategy should not be additionally stigmatized. We who are lucky enough to be able to experience the relief that the positive emotions can give should be turning toward our sisters and brothers in love and compassion, not in judgment for their suffering.

Such behavior is a deflection strategy—”don’t bring your woundedness over here because I don’t want to feel it.” But we are meant to feel it—so that our compassion can spur us to action. I think of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen—where you breathe in the suffering of the world and breathe out love, compassion, relief from suffering. I practice it as a way to build up my strength for turning toward suffering, not away. For sitting with someone in pain in sisterly companionship, not trying to jolly them out of it. And then, yes, I practice gratitude and learned optimism so I can be prepared for encountering suffering again in the most balanced way.

Written by MJ Ryan, SheEO Development Guide

Photo by Francesco Gallarotti 

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