[OPINION] How do you practice non-toxic positivity?
Recently, an interesting term emerged in the discourse on framing and experiencing pain and struggles: toxic positivity. The phrase refers to the idea that we should remain positive at all times, regardless of circumstances, because that’s the only right way of dealing with things.
Isn’t it an oxymoron? Because how can something positive be harmful? However, many who have been in a dark place or who have helped others get out of it can affirm toxic positivity as a legitimate human experience.
What toxic positivity looks like
In random conversations, I would ask people who open up about toxic positivity to describe what it looks like. Some say it’s when the positivity gets “too much.” Others describe it as a positivity that makes them “feel neglected or invalidated.” Then, there are those who think “it’s not the kind of positivity needed at the moment.” I vividly remember someone saying, “It’s as if you’re already too full, trying to digest the difficult stuff, and yet, someone’s still shoving into your throat something that you’re not ready to chew.”
In those conversations, I gleaned that toxic positivity is typically used to describe others, specifically others’ responses after someone seeks help. I also realized that people recognize the need for positivity, but a specific type, different from the toxic positivity they described. (READ: [OPINION] Embracing grief, avoiding toxic positivity)
These made me ask: What kind of positivity do we need from others, and even from ourselves? If there’s toxic positivity, then maybe there could be positivity that is not toxic – a positivity that helps; a positivity that heals. How can we foster a kind of healing positivity?
Positivity is and should not be necessarily bad or toxic. The positive psychology movement has successfully established that focusing on the good, the strong, the beautiful, and the positive side of our humanity helps.
In times of crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, we hear of resilience, optimism, and hope, among others, as characteristics that enable people to survive and even transcend difficult moments in their lives. How then can we keep positive in a way that affirms the fortitude of the human spirit? What kind of positivity do we need?
Positivity that is grounded
The positivity we need recognizes the real difficulty of a situation; it's a positivity founded upon a realistic assessment of an experience. We maintain a positive outlook by knowing that the good, the strong, and the beautiful remain in us, but we are also keen on identifying factors that threaten well-being. Simultaneous to affirming positive outcomes that can emerge from a crisis is the careful analysis of risks and vulnerabilities, as well as the commitment to act out on mitigating these risks and fortifying these vulnerabilities. (READ: [OPINION] To the graduating class of COVID-19)
During the pandemic, we need to recognize the real danger of contracting the disease and the problems that arise due to the changed circumstances. We also need to acknowledge that, at a macro-level, the government, foremost, has to strategize more effectively in addressing the direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic. As we do so, we continue exploring areas of response which are within our locus of control. Keeping hope, we accept that we can contribute to combatting the ill-effects of the pandemic to a certain extent and within our sphere of influence. Keeping hope, we see that the crisis is real but is impermanent and that there are better days ahead.
Positivity that recognizes and accepts negative emotions as valid and necessary
Human emotions are complex. The variety of emotions we experience and the even more diverse way we label these emotions are probably one of the colorful dimensions of our humanity.
Hence, a positivity we need is that which allows the expression of other emotions. It's a positivity that recognizes that even emotions such as fear, anger, disgust, and others which we commonly evaluate as negative have a function to serve for our survival and growth.
It is true that negative emotions are associated with distress, which when prolonged can trigger and bring forth psychological concerns, but it is also true that, to a certain degree, these negative emotions motivate us to act on the situation we are in to make it better.
If a normal range of fear or anxiety is absent amid a pandemic, just imagine how we will fare when committing to safety protocols. If a normal range of frustration or even anger is absent, how can we demand for better systems in our workplaces and communities? How can we advocate for better working arrangements or health services for those in dire need? If a normal range of sadness is absent, how can we come to terms with the reality of physical distancing and still be motivated to keep connected with others?
Nevertheless, amid fear, frustration, anger, or sadness, we can still keep and share a positive disposition, which recognizes that emotions are often temporary, and that these emotions will change as the situation changes. We remain positive by knowing that when situations start to get better – and that they usually will, especially if people proactively collaborate to improve circumstances – our emotions will tend to become more positive as well.
Positivity that cares
The positivity we need is one that cares. It's a positivity that embraces the whole person and accepts not only the strengths but also the limitations of the self and others. It is a positivity that genuinely concerns itself with others not only when they are at their best, but more so when they are not so well.
The kind of positivity we need is that which seeks first to listen than to be heard. In times of adversities, care is primarily shown through listening. When caught in a situation when answers are not absolutely available, what feels better and what helps better is being able to articulate our questions, our thoughts, and our feelings about a catastrophe. Especially now, when we are far from one another, listening truly is on top of our support regimen.
Hence, when we share positivity, it is with the assumption that we have truly and genuinely listened. When we listen, we are able to spot which areas are needing and which areas are strong. We can build on the strong areas and explore how to fortify the others. This way, we can encourage others to look at things from a different angle, while acknowledging that their present way of looking is real for them at the moment – not necessarily better, but valid.
Positivity that transforms
More than ever, the positivity we need is a transformative kind. It is not the positivity that veers away from the suffering of others but a positivity that motivates us to journey towards better things.
We are awed by how selfless people can be in these times, or in previous emergencies for that matter. Communities working together to help one another. Families helping other families despite limited resources. Individuals harnessing their own cognitive reserves to lend an ear or a helping hand as they too battle the same horrors that the adversity brings.
A positivity we need is a positivity in action. It is a positivity that is not only said but done. As we tell others and ourselves to be more positive, we also work together to make things better, or as others would say, build back better.
Above these, the positivity we need is fair and just. It is a positivity that understands that there are systems and people in power who are capable of making decisions to make things better, beyond what we are individually capable of. It is a positivity that respects this power and, thus, holds those with power accountable for making good choices on a larger scale.
Positivity that encourages help-seeking as needed
Most importantly, a positivity we need is that which allows people to realize that they have the power for self-care – that in most cases they are capable of ensuring their own well-being – but that there are situations where help may be required.
For those in the helping profession, one of the challenges is the stigma people have about seeking help: the stigma that comes from the belief that it is okay to give help but not quite to seek help. But this should not be the case. As we foster a positive disposition and as we influence others to possess the same, we also need to manifest that it is okay for us to need help and to seek help as we deem necessary. Seeking help is positive.
Let positivity heal
The kind of healing positivity that we possess and share may help us and others not only to cope more effectively, but to seek and work towards finding and making better things. Unlike the toxic positivity many of us are skeptical about, a healing positivity is something proactive, respectful, and yet optimistic and hopeful.
I remember a conversation I had in one of the disaster-stricken communities we were helping. It was with a young man, 17, who experienced many storms in his life – both literal and figurative. He was talking about the value of laughter. He said, when there are problems, he deals first with his negative emotions. This way, he is able to remain positive and focus on the things that he needs to address to survive, instead of extensively expending his attention on the negative emotions he is feeling. This only shows that when we recognize and accept the reality of the negativities in life, we are able to genuinely receive its positivities.
Yes, it is impossible to be positive all the time, but it is possible to be positive on several occasions, even when things aren’t playing out as planned. It is not always bad to feel bad, but it is often good to feel good. Aiming at feeling good is okay. It is not always easy to keep a positive outlook but it is possible to try. Trying is alright. As we avoid toxic positivity, may we not tire in allowing the good kind of positivity to heal us. – Rappler.com
Nephtaly Joel B. Botor is an assistant professor at the Department of Human and Family Development Studies, UPLB and the Education and Training Director of Balik Kalipay Center for Psychosocial Response, Inc. His research interest and public service initiatives are in the areas of family and community counseling, disaster mental health, and gender and development.