Full of pitfalls and different perspectives, there’s nothing like a pandemic to leave us speechless for supportive words. I found myself on the giving end of toxic positivity when my friend lost her business due to the COVID-19 closures in downtown San Francisco. Next, she suffered a massive leg fracture. There were no words as I watched her losing her apartment and struggling to figure out what to do next with her life.
Coming over to help her cook dinner, I sprang to clean up the broken glass in the kitchen sink. She told me not to worry about it from her wheelchair. Struggling with her crutches, she came into the kitchen.
We continued with dinner, but it wasn’t until much later that she broke down and told me the pressure that my words laid on her. From her perspective, I’d minimized the pain of the moment she was in. I was reaching in thin air for something to lighten the mood, because I was so painfully uncomfortable with my friend’s suffering situation.
The Bible says that a loud greeting in the morning could be considered a curse. When it comes to a world worn down by a pandemic, racism, and conflict, a confession of a “confident hope” might come across as “toxic positivity.”
What Is Toxic Positivity?
Toxic positivity takes many forms, including stigmatizing mental illness, demeaning a loss, isolating, complicating communication, or lowering self-esteem, according to a definition provided by MedicalNewsToday. As Christians, we’re commissioned to encourage and truly bear the burdens of others. Toxic positivity is an excuse that we use for getting our hands dirty. Are our words a witty slogan to be encouraging, or are we truly sitting in support of our friends?
“God works in mysterious ways.”
“We can’t question God’s grand design. May His will be done.”
“Everything is going to work out!”
All these beautiful words that make for great embroidered couch cushions might be an extra jab at someone suffering. How can we support others without being toxically positive?
Returning to the greatest words ever spoken, we can share God’s Biblical promises with the people who need them most. If we know God’s word or have a smartphone in hand so we can quickly access it, we can respond with something that is true. Not just a cute slogan.
Why Toxic Positivity Is So Painful
It’s important to recognize that optimism and toxic positivity are not the same thing. One observes the challenges, recognizes and admits them, and then views the setbacks as temporary. Toxic positivity likes to ignore them all together.
An article produced by the University of East London explains that regarding domestic violence, telling victims to “cheer up” or “look on the bright side” of things could continue to put them in physical danger and elongate their time in damaging relationships. When my friend suffered in the middle of her collapsing life and closed-up business in San Francisco, I found myself caught between sounding full of faith and calloused.
The nature of toxic positivity is like a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. In the Bible, Jesus dealt in reality. He addressed the state of the Jewish nation, recognizing their need for a political Savior from Roman oppression. His responses, while positive, weren’t exactly what was anticipated. Jesus rarely left the potent emotions in the room ignored, commenting on them directly or sometimes mentioning the things that no one was saying.
The familiar story in Luke 8:42-48 shows him walking through the pressing crowd before being touched by the woman suffering with a blood disorder. He didn’t look through the crowd and say, “I see you,” or “Go in peace.” He looked through the crowd, brought awareness to her, and then brought awareness to her need for healing. She was trying to be discreet, veiling her difficult circumstances, but Jesus deliberately called them to the light. He didn’t provide any optimistic words, just pure powerful truth.
Toxic positivity can sound like, “Everything happens for a reason.” We find ourselves, oftentimes as Christians, throwing around cliche phrases recognized by other church goers. These phrases fall flat for people without a church background, or anyone in peril need to hear something truly encouraging. Confident hope sounds like, “Though He slay me, I will yet praise Him.”
Confident hope sounds like Habakkuk 3:17-19: “Even though the fig trees have no fruit and no grapes grow on the vines, even though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no grain, even though the sheep all die and the cattle stalls are empty, I will still be joyful and glad, because the Lord God is my savior. The Sovereign Lord gives me strength.”
How much pressure comes from thinking that you need to feel good all the time? That there’s no place you can just “fall apart” for a second? That’s the prison that toxic positivity puts us in. When we make it not okay to be not okay, we tap into the dangers of “good vibes only.” Suppressing our emotions, we’ll vent them in other ways. Suppressing the emotions of others? Teaches them it’s not safe to be vulnerable with us.
The nature of toxic positivity is like a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.
A confident hope is faith placed in something that we’ve not yet seen, but as promised. This highlights the extreme value in Christians knowing God’s promises.
Repressed emotions can’t stay that way—we’re all learning this as media coverage shows what humankind really thinks about what is going on in different political arenas. Much like a kettle full of steam, emotions released are healthy and might result in great results. Like a nice cup of tea.
Emotions repressed, welded shut by toxic positivity, inevitably lead to more harm.
Are We Purposely Avoiding Vulnerability?
Could it be that phrases and slogans are a way that we escape from being vulnerable when confronted with someone else’s pain? It’s much easier to slap on a Band-Aid than see a wound, right? Vulnerability might be exactly what is needed to bring true healing to the hurting.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, a survey done in 2020 showed that 90% of teens and young adults sought out stories online concerning mental health issues, accessing anecdotal information. They were effectively searching for someone with a similar story to understand their own.
Give the Gift of a Listening Ear
Before we do anything to encourage or help our friend, we need to “be” with them in their circumstances. We take a deep breath, sit in the uncomfortable. Sit in silence. Sit in tough circumstances. Sit until the suffering are free to speak.
Listening, allowing the other party or ourselves to feel whatever they need to feel, we rip the tape from their mouths and set those emotions free. Jesus referred directly to the woman with the issue of blood, calling her out to be recognized by others so that her problems could be directly addressed. Listening and truly hearing requires mindfulness and strength.
Sometimes the most confidently hopeful thing that we can do is make others feel truly listened to and heard. Sometimes our presence is the booster that they need. Again, being rooted in the foundation that is the word of God, we can discern what we are being called upon to do. It requires mindfulness and constant contact with Jesus through prayer and study, not a witty slogan that we saw or heard somewhere.
After a few vulnerable conversations with my friend, we reconnected and healed with depth. I directly asked her what was going on, with her graciously explaining how my forced “positive statements” shut her down and made her feel unheard. From that reality, we could move forward, heal together, and hopefully do better.
The promises of God are unique to each situation, as diverse as the people that God Himself created. Being confidently hopeful means knowing the truth, knowing when to share or to listen, and allowing it to set ourselves and others free from empty, terrible toxic positivity.
Sometimes we fall back on toxic positivity when we’re afraid to be real. This podcast episode aims to help you step up and be your true self: Stop People Pleasing Now With Cherlyn Decker – 159