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E38. Toxic Positivity: Can Positivity Hurt?

Welcome to ADHD Crash Course! Today is all about positivity or optimism. We're going to talk about the concept of toxic positivity, the approach of practicing positivity, and the whole idea of optimism versus pessimism.

Let's talk about toxic positivity. You hear this a lot. You hear this term thrown around a lot. People are aware that only being positive about something, only recognizing the positive aspects, isn't always that helpful for any of us. That's maybe a shift from this older mindset of "keep it positive, only look on the bright side."

What would we do with that? Let's dive in a little bit about toxic positivity, what exactly that is, and why it's not helpful. I tend to think of this as "fragile positivity" versus toxic positivity, because to me, this sums it up a little bit more accurately.

Fragile positivity is positivity that cannot exist with any duality. Fragile positivity says, "If I can't be the only player here, I'm not showing up." Fragile positivity is threatened by the negative aspects of things. Toxic positivity can be toxic to people, right? It can be harmful to people. I think that the heart of that is that the person on the other end is struggling with the duality of: things can have both, there can be good and bad in a situation. Only allowing the positive isn't necessarily the healthiest way to manage the negative, or to manage your experience of the negative.

Even with something that's painful or difficult, the answer that toxic positivity gives is, "Let's just focus on the bright side, and let's not acknowledge that negative aspect of this." Why is this kind of positivity so harmful?

There's probably a lot of views on this, and a lot of perspectives. I can tell you from my personal experience, my personal perspective, that when we deal with life events using this kind of positivity, it's like that game with the mole heads. You know the game where you swing with a hammer, you hit the mole head down, and another one pops up in another place? That is dealing with a negative experience with toxic positivity. Insisting that the negative emotion and experience isn't happening does not make it go away. It just smashes down that one little mole head, and it pops up somewhere else.

If I have the experience of being really angry with my spouse, I insist that it's not happening, he's really just a great person, and I shouldn't really be negative, that doesn't make my experience go away. It makes it shape shift or pop up somewhere else.

Maybe I'm going to be short with a co-worker, or maybe I'm going to be down on myself, but I'm not going to be looking at that experience and acknowledging what is real for me. "Yeah, this comment hurt my feelings. It was frustrating." What I do with that is up to me, but toxic positivity hasn't given me space for that real experience of the negative. There is a difference between acknowledging an emotion, and getting stuck on it (getting in a place of rumination where you're not moving forward). You do need to acknowledge the negative to be able to move forward.

I want to talk about the difference between this toxic, fragile positivity and the practice of positivity, because they are different. Let's define what I refer to as practicing positivity. That is the active process of stretching your thoughts, and of recognizing that a thought is going to pop up for you. It may not be a helpful thought. That situation is going to happen, and you're going to have some options for how to interpret it.

It doesn't crush down the negative and make no room for it. It acknowledges the negative. Let's take the situation where my husband made a comment that hurt my feelings. If I'm being toxically positive about my experience of that, I'm going to make no room for what I experienced and just say, "Well, you know he's a great guy, we have a great relationship." I'm going to gloss right over this, and not acknowledge what was difficult for me.

When I'm practicing positivity, I'm going to take a look at what popped up for me after he made his comment, and I'm going to stretch the possible ways I can interpret this. I'm going to add to my experience and suggest some other possibilities.

Another place that we can use this practicing positivity is when we're looking at an outcome, particularly with anxiety. We might think of the worst possible outcome. Try taking some time to practice and imagine a better outcome, a good outcome. Your brain is actively creating the possibilities, so our brains will tend to go to the negative for these possibilities. It's how our brains are wired.

We talked about negativity bias, that in order to keep us safe and alive, our brain is going to think about the negative outcome, to prepare for it to survive. Whereas this is great for survival, it is not great for thriving in your modern day life. Practicing positivity is diverting that "current" that's going to happen naturally and saying, "let's try imagining this outcome."

If you're anxious about a big meeting coming up, it's normal for your brain to want to practice all the things that can go wrong. Practicing positivity means actively trying to imagine these things going well, or these things going average. If you're really concerned and worried about something, that practice of stretching your mind and thoughts moves you out of the automatic and into a place where you're actually creating a thought.

We have over 6,000 thoughts a day. Most of those are not going to be created by us. They're going to be automatic, but if we spend some time creating them now, then our automatic thoughts are going to get more positive. They're going to get more helpful to us. It doesn't mean that we ignore the reality that what we're experiencing might be negative. We might be nervous, we might be hurt, we might be frustrated, but when we're practicing positivity, we're trying some other things on for size. We're trying on some other viewpoints, and letting ourselves stretch a little bit.

Now, it doesn't work for most of our brains, if we just choose something that's totally unbelievable. It's just not going to stick, and our brains not going to feel comfortable. If you're very worried about this meeting and you're actively imagining it going horribly, just imagining it going okay might be exactly what your brain needs right now to stretch, to practice that more positive outcome.

It does not have to be that you're going to go and win the most valuable employee award after your meeting. It can just be that it's not going to be a disaster. I think I told the story in another podcast. This is a problem with having memory issues, I have no idea what I say. I can't remember. One of my daughters was selected for this special program. She was excited about it, but she was nervous and anxious, because she didn't know what to expect. She didn't know the people that were going, so her brain was going to all the ways that this could go wrong.

We were talking about this and I suggested, "Let's practice thinking about the ways this could go right." "Let's think about even the best case scenario, what could be the best thing possible?" She said, "The best thing possible would be that I would win a scholarship based on this program, and it would be amazing." Her mind went there, she closed her eyes, and was picturing this.

She started laughing. She said, "Well, it turned on me. I pictured that great outcome, and then all the people were saying, "Well, she's not that great. Why would she get that award? Everybody kind of turned on me." We laughed about it, and it's funny, right? It is, it's funny, because our brains do want to protect us. They go to this worst case scenario.

Her brain is very practiced at imagining a future that she's got to prepare for, imagining a more negative future. Her ability to imagine a more positive outcome is a skill that can be practiced. The worst thing that you can do is start to feel negative about your negative thinking.

I remember when I was a child, I was young enough that I had never heard this concept of "the glass half full and half empty." Somebody came to our elementary school classroom, to do this motivational talk for us. He had these two glasses of water and asked a show of hands, "Who thinks this glass is half full? Who thinks this glass is half empty?" Me being an anxious little child, I definitely raised my hand for the half empty. He then went on to say, "Well, you guys are the pessimists".

I remember I felt so bad about being a pessimist. I was negative about my negative thinking. I thought, "Wow, that's horrible. I see this so negatively." I ended up feeling very bad that I was a "pessimist", but the reality is, our brains tend to be wired for this way of thinking just to survive. Our brains are interested in surviving, they're not so interested in thriving. Our abilities to be able to stretch these thoughts and create new habits do exist, but we don't want to get bogged down with eliminating the negative. Especially in our thought life, thoughts are going to pop up.

That first thought is automatic. What you do next, sometimes you have more choice over this. The first thought comes and when we're aware of that, we can create a second thought. If you're someone who deals with rumination, if you're someone who deals with intrusive thoughts, you may very well have more of these intrusive, negative, "first thoughts" pop up. It doesn't mean you have to believe every one of them, and it doesn't mean that you have to do battle with them.

I think sometimes when the suggestion is made that you just replace a negative thought with an entirely positive thought (a battle, "white-knuckling" this thought), that's really not shown to be very helpful for people. Actively practicing some of those positive thoughts and those things that you want to believe, stretching your automatic thoughts, that's what I'm referring to when I'm talking about practicing positivity. It does not require that all the negative thoughts are gone, or that any negative perspectives are gone in order for you to practice positivity.

It's a much more sustainable, helpful, and healthy way to work on our mindsets. I wanted to touch really quickly on the idea of growth mindset. If you're not familiar with growth mindset, it is the understanding that we are all born with certain abilities and skills, but that we can grow. There are people that are born with more optimism, with more of a natural bend to that way of thinking, so for those people, this might come a lot easier. Even if you are someone who is not born with that wiring, you can strengthen this skill.

If you're like me and you failed the optimism test as a child, there is still hope for you, I promise. Okay, so wrapping up today. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode on toxic positivity versus practicing positivity, the differences, and what we can do about that. Thank you so much for joining me.


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