On Tuesday night during the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama gave a powerful speech. Most striking to me was her reference to her famous line: “When they go low, we go high.” She made an important distinction about what that truly means. She said: “Going high doesn’t mean putting on a smile and ignoring the negativity and viciousness.”
This is an important clarification and one that reminds me of the research I have been doing on toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is defined as:
toxic positivity as the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.
Researchers have identified multiple layers of problem with this overgeneralization. By always looking on the bright side, those who practice toxic positivity are actually not allowing themselves to feel emotions that are really important. It’s not that they don’t feel those emotions, but rather that someone who has been taught to practice toxic positivity doesn’t have a place to express those deep emotions that aren’t deemed “positive.”
The results are devastating. Denying uncomfortable emotions buries those emotions deep within and can impact sleep and stress levels. When someone who practices toxic positivity denies uncomfortable emotions in their own lives, conversations with others who are going through difficult or traumatic experiences are burdened with hurtful and harmful comments like: “It will all work out. Everything is going to be ok.” Because the person practicing toxic positivity is unable to provide room for those more difficult emotions, they are unable to form real and meaningful connections with others.
I’ve heard toxic positivity invade our discussions of the pandemic in ways that attempt to suppress grief and fear and doubt. While I do believe “we are going to get through this”, I also believe there are families, communities, and professions that will never be the same because of this pandemic. We need to provide space for grief, anger, and fear. We need to not try to cover up or gloss over what we are feeling and what we are experiencing. We need to practice walking in each other’s shoes understanding that we are more connected than we are divided.