The influence of Toxic Positivity

By: Tazmayn Goode, Drake Wellbeing Consultant

Tell me about your experience with toxic positivity:

As a self-confessed poster child for toxic positivity, I can play devil’s advocate with this topic. This is one of my most inherent coping mechanism, and like most are, it has been since a young age. I’ve always been the girl with the big smile and infectious positivity, enthusiasm and rose-coloured glasses. I was also the girl with a history of childhood trauma. But nobody wanted to hear that. That was “negative”, it was uncomfortable for people to hear. It became the unspoken. Those tears were to be wiped and that face was to be washed and a pretty dress was to be put on because “happy girls are pretty girls”.

The message engrained was, “Being positive is good, you are so strong and resilient. You do so well in adversity” I became committed to the denial of the “negative” experiences and emotions. If pretending made others comfortable, surely pretending would eventually make me happy.

And so it began.

Toxic positivity undermines us. It robs us of having the full human experience. It keeps us in denial of our reality – keeps us from working through the pain and ultimately our greatest personal growths.

What are the organisational impacts of toxic positivity?

By denying people of their full range of humanness you are denying your organisation the gift of authenticity. It’s often the teams that have endured the greatest struggles together who come out on top! By keeping the struggle in the dark – the victory is not as sweet.

Toxic positivity is saying, “we hear your voice of worry, fear, exhaustion – but why not focus on the fact that you have a job when so many other don’t” or “Let us be grateful for what we do have rather than focusing on what we don’t” or “Your attitude determines your success”. Its forced and its false.

Instead of shifting focus as most people intend to do when “focusing on the positive”, you have layered those ‘less positive’ emotions, ie, the person’s reality with shame and diverted your people from their reality, which is one of fear and exhaustion, whether you choose to address it or not.

Toxic positivity creates a FRAGILE workforce. As Leadership, you are saying “I’m choosing my feeling comfortable over your uncomfortable reality”.  If we do this with emotion (experienced by all), how do we think it impacts things such as diversity and inclusion (experienced by minorities) – if it is not safe to speak about shared experience, how can it be safe to speak about personal experiences?

How do we problem solve when we are not living in the world as it is, but as we wish it were?

How do you create a culture where employees can bring their authentic selves, including their negative feelings, to work?

  • Create a psychologically safe environment by breaking down the stigma around struggle.
  • Practice emotional agility – Curiosity: what is this emotion trying to tell me?
  • Stop negative and positive labelling of emotions – emotions are neither good nor bad, they are simply data, directing us to which piece of our experience needs attention and adjustment.
  • Use shared language. Words like, struggle, frustration, exhaustion, overwhelm, fatigue, threshold.
  • Equip people with the tools to all be speaking the same language. Identify the emotion instead of personifying it; Instead of “I am angry – I am stressed, I am depressed”. “I am noticing I’m feeling anger. I am noticing my nervous system going into fight or flight. I can sense a feeling of hopelessness”.
  • As Leaders, invite the full human experience – from leadership, we show humanness, to be human is to be vulnerable. Share your mistakes and learnings.
  • Name the emotions, problems, mistakes – don’t dwell on them – focus on the reality and how we’ll overcome or improve the situation which has led to the experience of these emotions.
  • Perspective tools; detach from the emotion (again, emotion is data, not a directive) and problem solve from a space of subjectivity; activities like “If we invited the wisest, kindest person into this situation, what would they suggest you do?”
  • Use compassion – when people are showing you that they are highly stressed and not coping, see the child in them, treat them with the same compassion you would a 5-year-old. Treat yourself the same in times of stress.
  • Remember as humans, we are naturally part of a community – we need physical connection. We are lacking it over Zoom. Before a meeting – place your hand on your chest, remind yourself through touch that you are connected to those is your meeting.

Does there need to be a balancing act between allowing for negative feelings and letting them impact the wider team?

Shake up the status quo! By allowing free flow of emotion, you can absolutely expect a lot of discomfort. But with the right tools and professional coaching, the discomfort will give way to the new norm – of authenticity and safe spaces where people can thrive.

The data is frightening – World Health Organisation’s data shows depression is the leading cause of disability globally. What does that mean? We are in a mental health crisis. Like COVID, this pandemic knows no boundaries of age, gender, nationality, culture, social status.

When we treat emotions with curiosity and without labelling them as good or bad, we become more tolerant of our own emotions. Once we experience with our own emotions, we naturally extend this understanding to our colleague.

Again on shared language – if before a meeting people were invited to express what they’re noticing they’re feeling at that time, conversation would be more connected, more authentic because you go from “Dan is in a foul mood again, I wonder how he’ll bring down the vibe today?” to understanding maybe Dan’s expression isn’t anger, perhaps its distraction and overwhelm – so instead of going into the meeting fighting Dan’s fire with fire – you go in understanding he is time poor over competing priorities and you view him and communicate through a different lens. We take out the ego and we get down to the essence.

By eradicating labelling and viewing the reality of the situation with its full range of emotions, there is no “letting it impact the wider team”. Let the team be impacted. Together they will find a solution far more superior to those found in the shallows of toxic positivity.

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