When I’m going through a lot or I just feel a little down, I often times will attempt to disclose my feelings myself to a close friend as most people will. I’ve learned that when you express your feelings early and often, that easier it becomes to do after a while. However, I feel that the majority of the time, I get super doses of toxic positivity. You may be wondering, what is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity is a term that is somewhat new but has always existed. It’s the idea that encourages people to only be happy, positive and optimistic regardless of the situation. As social media became an extension of our lives, it’s second nature to comment or post something that falls under this definition. Sayings such as “stay positive”, “you got this”, “positive vibes only” and (the worst of all) “keep your head up” aren’t really words of encouragement. They aren’t intended to help the one suffering at all.
In the summer of 2015, I lost my grandmother. She was one of the closest people I could have close to my heart. This really took a toll on my family and me. When I finally decided to inform everyone what I was going through, I got an overwhelming amount of “stay strong” and “keep your head up.” Why is it that I can’t be vulnerable when I’m experiencing a major loss? Why is it an expectation that I need to be an example of positivity when I simply not at that time? Why should try to seem happy when I had not one happy bone in my body?
In the spirit of gratitude, I thanked everyone who reached out to during that troubling time. I truly was appreciative for everyone who gave their time and energy to send me some message, but I did not find all of it encouraging. When I reflect on other negative experiences in my life, I notice that many of them had similar results. Whether I posted something on social media or was honest with someone in person, when asked how I was doing, most were very surface level with me. I also noticed somewhat of a double standard when it came to women expressing themselves. From my experience, I observed that women gave more support emotionally than men. I also noticed that women gave more support to other women than they do men. This posed the question: Why aren’t men’s emotions and experiences valued the same as our counterparts?
As disappointing as this observation could’ve been, I didn’t take it too personally. Men are often expected to exude confidence, be a pillar of strength and have a tight grip on their emotions. I figure this is why we aren’t great at communicating sometimes because we are taught from an early age that our emotions and experiences don’t have much value. So I concluded that women may be “surface level” with men sometimes because they don’t know we would respond. Especially since the stereotype for us is that we don’t communicate well, it can easily be assumed that we wouldn’t have a less than favorable response to someone who takes an interest in our emotional wellbeing. Also, some (both men and women) may have the stereotypical image of what a man is supposed to be so they feel they shouldn’t care. This is a weird paradigm, right? So where do we go from here? How can we be more helpful than harmful when trying to uplift others?
Here are 5 tips on how to encourage and be empathetic without coming off as toxic.
Listen, listen again and repeat.
It’s so easy to want to jump in a give this advice that you’ve been given or gave to others, but remember that everyone experiences things differently. So listening to issues at hand and inquire about their experience. Sometimes, you may have to repeat back what they said just to understand that we understand their experience.
Before you advise, validate.
I think this is the most important step. When upset students come into my office at my job, the first thing I do after they told me their story is to tell him that I understand where they’re coming from. Validating them means that you are listening and empathizing with them. At the end of the day, it’s okay to be upset. It’s perfectly fine to angry when you’ve been wronged or provoked. Telling someone they’re allowed to experience the full range of human emotions is much better than telling someone “you’ll be fine.”
It’s okay to not know what to say.
Sometimes we may be able to relate to everyone’s problems especially when we haven’t dealt with something similar ourselves. So I think it’s okay to be transparent and tell them that you've never been in their shoes before. Spending time trying to understand can go much further than some surface-level advice.
Offer advice from personal experiences.
Most of us don’t have an extensive history with psychology. Most of us are still learning about mental health. So offering advice from your life experiences can be helpful and relatable to people. Personally, I’d much rather hear about other people’s experiences when it came to dealing with loss than someone giving advice I could find printed on a t-shirt.
Always attempt to follow up.
I’m sure at some point in our lives we were given the infamous line, “I’m here for you if you need anything.” The irony is that most of the time, the majority of these people are ones who live the furthest away or have very limited resources. Instead of saying that, just reach out. Reach out again if you need to. Talk to them. Have a conversation. Let your intuition guide you on what to do after you had a conversation with them. Most importantly, follow up. There’s no need to tell someone that you’re going to be there for them if they only hear from you once. I remember being given a card from friends after my grandma passed. Some of those same friends kept up with me the entire summer. They didn’t do much to go out the way, but knowing that I could talk to them when I was ready really did help me. I was so thankful for them during that difficult time.
Regardless of your gender, I believe these tips can help you come across as a person who is compassionate. Although I’m not an expert, Taking away the toxic undertones can be very validating and uplifting. I hope you find this useful.
When were you expected to be positive when you had no positivity left to give?