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

Loaded language: Inspiration porn

This phrase was first coined in 2014 by disability activist Stella Young and to summarise her definition:

“Inspiration porn is the objectification of disabled people for the benefit of non disabled people.”

It is a deliberately provocative term and for a fuller, more rounded explanation I really encourage you to watch this short video.

I share this post this week at the height of the Paralympics, where Team GB are flying high in the medal table and Dame Sarah Storey has set a new record for Paralympic gold medals with an incredible tally of 17. She has competed in two sports in her Paralympic career swimming and cycling and she is an extremely talented athlete. However, there have been times where the stories of our athletes has drifted into the inspiration porn territory. These uses tend to share one or more of the following characteristics highlighted in this brilliant article by Forbes:

  • an attempt to generate sentimentality and/or pity
  • contains some form of moral message, primarily aimed at non-disabled viewers
  • disabled people anonymously objectified, even when they are named

The first question I have for you this week is are you watching the Paralympics? I am going to call myself out on this and say I have been much more selective than I was in watching the Olympics where I would pretty much watch everything. Second and much more important question – what are you thinking when you do watch Paralympic athletes perform. Do you see them as elite athletes or do you see something else?

Have a watch of this Channel 4 advert for the 2016 Paralympic Games. Whilst well intentioned, the title sets the wrong tone and I would ask the question of whether an advert for Olympic Games coverage would include footage of someone answering a phone in an office, a child eating a bowl of cereal or a mother holding her baby?

Like the late Stella Young, I subscribe to the social model of disability. I really like the Scope definition:

“the social model says that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. Barriers can be physical, like buildings not having accessible toilets. Or they can be caused by people’s attitudes to difference, like assuming disabled people can’t do certain things.”

So rather than being wowed by disabled people performing every day tasks or enjoying their hobbies let’s think about how we can remove barriers and change our attitudes and perceptions. But most of all let’s stop celebrating inspiration porn and call it out when we see it.

Loaded language: Fragility

This week my second excursion into the powerful world of language and phrases. Once again I’ll be exploring a term or phrase that I think is misunderstood or wilfully misconstrued. So let’s talk about fragility and I’ll start with a definition.

fragility: the quality of being delicate or vulnerable

There is an irony in this definition as often those displaying fragility are not actually the vulnerable ones but the conversation, action or situation makes them perceive that they are in a vulnerable position. At its worst fragility, can be shrouded in gaslighting – but that’s a term for another day…

So what is fragility in the world of inclusion and what impact does it have? What I have seen is an individual or an under represented group raising concern about their experience or how they are being treated. Author Robin DiAngelo first coined the phrase ‘White Fragility’ in the title of her 2018 book. However, the fragility I see extends beyond matters of race and covers all under represented groups. This is how I see it show up.

  • It is in part a denial of someone’s lived experience
  • It is a defensive position that fails to, or refuses to, acknowledge how you may have benefited from existing social structures and hierarchies
  • A negative reaction to any strong terms that are used to describe that experience
  • A rejection of ownership of being complicit in the problem, leading to centering the feelings and emotions of the individual from the ‘majority’ group at the expense of the individual from the under represented group

I’ll give you an example. An employee goes to speak to their boss about their experience of racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism in the work place. The boss starts off with a couple of gaslighting blows: asking them questions such as are you sure that is what was intended? They then move on to say that the terms the employee is using to describe the event are potentially overinflating the problem “I’m not sure I would say that was racist” or “those are really strong terms to describe that”. Then comes the fragility gut punch “I’ve been trying really hard to improve things for the team here” or “I’ve introduced policies and processes and we’ve given everyone training” a defensive reaction that centres themselves as the innocent victim in all of this.

This is painful to hear when you’ve experienced trauma. It is hard enough to muster the courage to share but your overriding hope is that your experience will be acknowledged, you will feel heard and your manager / the organisation will take action. It is not ok to have to fight your corner. It is not ok to be compelled to explain that you did experience racism, sexism, ableism or homophobia. It is not ok to have argue that the training hasn’t gone far enough, the revised policies aren’t working or that the organisation has to work harder to embed meaningful sustainable change. And it is definitely not ok for the conversation to become centred on the manager’s emotions and not the employees.

If you are the manager or leader in this scenario I understand how daunting, nerve wracking and challenging leading for this work can be for you, especially if you have minimal lived experience that you can draw on. Humility and curiosity are your strengths here. Listen to understand, be open to reviewing or revising your interventions and be brave enough to take action to support your under represented colleagues. If you can tap into your fragility but use it as a warning system rather than a response mechanism it could aid your work to being a better ally and inclusive leader.

Loaded language: Privilege

This week will be my first dedicated foray into exploring a term or phrase that I think is misunderstood or wilfully misconstrued. This week let’s talk about privilege and I’ll start with a definition.

privilege : a special right or advantage that a particular person or group of people has 

I think there are two key challenges with how this definition is understood. The first is a perception that privilege is material and that when you have it you are aware that you have it. The second is a subconscious correlation between privilege and wealth, birthright and access to riches. The phrase ‘born with a silver spoon in their mouth’ may well come to mind when the concept of privilege is raised. Both of these interpretations can lead people to assume that a suggestion that they have privilege means they have never faced hardship. This is fundamentally untrue. Privilege is not binary and you can simultaneously hold privilege and lack it. I’ll use myself as an example…

I’m black, grew up in a working class family and have an invisible disability. So in some aspects of my life I have to deal with challenge and disadvantage simply because of my identity. I have experiences that go right across the spectrum from explicit in your face racism to disapproving glances when my MS has led me to need to use an accessible toilet.

On the other hand I am heterosexual so have never had to keep secret my relationships or not hold my partner’s hand in public. I am male so have not faced issues of sexism in the workplace. I was fortunate enough to be privately educated which I believe gave me a helping hand in gaining qualifications and experiences that have underpinned my career. I’m not a wheelchair user and don’t have sight loss so I don’t have to plan in detail every journey where I need to use public transport.

In the video below John Ameachi explores privilege through the lens of race and eloquently talks about privilege as “an absence of an inconvenience, impediment or challenge”. It is this lack of tangibility that causes some of the problems. If you are not automatically aware of the privilege you hold, how can you understand how it positively impacts on your life on a day to day basis?

John Amaechi on BBC Bitesize eloquently explaining the concept of white privilege

Understanding your privilege is important. It helps you be a better ally. It improves your ability to be mindful of potentially affinity bias and your blind spots. But most importantly, it allows you to be more consciously aware of inequality of experience, boosting your empathy and inclusive practice. If you would like to understand more about privilege I recommend registering for this free two hour live streamed webinar on July 1st run by the Privilege Project.

We need to talk about privilege more openly and in a non guarded and non judgemental way. I believe the term has most power when used to explore difference rather than criticise or chastise. I hope to see many more regular, balanced conversations about privilege and how it affects us all in the not too distant future. #ImNotTired