Toxic positivity

Ahhh yes the Lego Movie a brilliant film, a genius concept and the home planet of toxic positivity, more on that shortly…

I am a big fan of comedian Bill Bailey and one of my favourite sketches is this reflection on the British psyche and how we report on our current mood. In the clip below he mocks a frequently used response “not too bad” and riffs on the relentless optimism of our culture – the comment on convertible car ownership is inspired. There is an important point amidst all of the hilarity and this clip came to mind this week in a discussion with colleagues about the perils of Toxic Positivity.

This year Kendra Cherry wrote an article on toxic positivity which she describes it as “the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It’s a “good vibes only” approach to life.” As we hopefully progress beyond the pandemic, there is a real risk that this mindset is encouraged and expected by organisations. Let’s look forward with optimism, the worst is behind us or in the words of D:Ream ‘things can only get better’.

Cherry’s article helpfully articulates the negative impact this can have on individuals:

  • It’s shaming: When someone is suffering, they need to know that their emotions are valid, but that they can find relief and love in their friends and family. Toxic positivity tells people that the emotions they are feeling are unacceptable. 
  • It causes guilt: It sends a message that if you aren’t finding a way to feel positive, even in the face of tragedy, that you are doing something wrong.
  • It avoids authentic human emotion: It functions as an avoidance mechanism allowing people to sidestep emotional situations that might make them feel uncomfortable.
  • It prevents growth: It allows us to avoid feeling things that might be painful, but it also denies us the ability to face challenging feelings that can ultimately lead to growth and deeper insight.

I believe there is a fifth spoke to the toxic positivity wheel that particularly comes out in conversations about inclusion and diversity: ‘denial‘. The lack of empathy that runs through the four elements raised by Cherry is also at the heart of this point. An acceptance that there are issues within an organisation is an admittance that the system is unfair, unjust and / or imbalanced. It takes openness and a willingness to be vulnerable to admit that as an individual you may have contributed to that situation or scenario either directly or indirectly (by not challenging the status quo). The potential reaction is to focus on all the good stuff and dial up the positivity. The result threatens to be a bit like this ear worm.

Challenging this requires honesty with ourselves and with each other. It needs us to be open and supportive. Our emphasis needs to be placed on dialling up our empathy and understanding and toning down impressing on others to be upbeat and positive. Let’s be kind and honest to ourselves while we are at it. If things are tough, if you are feeling tired or burnt out share it rather than opting for a 7/10 or a not too bad. This is not a plea for us all to be moribund or miserable but vulnerability and honesty can help us share the burden. A call for help can allow us to support a colleague in need. We can pull through this together but we don’t need to make a (ridiculously upbeat, inaccurate and overly optimistic) song and dance about it.

To my inspiration for this week’s blog thank you – you know who you are! #ImNotTired

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