I recently heard the phrase toxic positivity. The speaker gave an example of how he tried to help his friend with depression by sharing everything he did to lift himself out of the doldrums. But, unfortunately, his friend wasn’t just down. He was clinically depressed and eventually committed suicide.
After the fact, this person realized that his friend needed professional help rather than a “pull your bootstraps up” pep talk. Hearing this got me asking myself whether I have ever used toxic positivity in my guise of “helping” others.
UW Medicine describes toxic positivity as “dismissing negative emotions and responding to distress with false reassurances rather than empathy. It comes from feeling uncomfortable with negative emotions. It is often well-intentioned but can cause alienation and a feeling of disconnection.”
In reflecting on this topic further, I could see where I have used toxic positivity in my need to fix what I perceived as a problem for someone who may have only needed me to hold them in sacred space for a few moments while they shared their feelings.
I am still learning that having a negative emotion is not bad. We are socialized to want to get rid of any uncomfortable feeling. I have been practicing sitting with my uncomfortable emotions and breathing deeply into where I feel the distress in my body. I find that instead of bypassing a difficult feeling, which inevitably comes back around, often more intensely, the challenging feeling will often dissolve with long deep breathing.
Recall a difficult feeling or emotion. Maybe for this experiment, make it not too intense. Notice where you feel the emotion in your body. Imagine holding this part of the body where you feel the emotion in tenderness. Begin to direct your breath into that area. Notice what happens. I find that when practicing this technique, the challenging emotion often dissolves. Does the uncomfortable feeling come back? I found that it can but not as intensely as before.
Once we become comfortable with our own difficult emotions, it will be easier to be there for others.
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