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Toxic Positivity. Huh??

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

Story by Laurie Grathen

In my post two weeks ago, I recommended you read Dr. Gladys McGarey's book, The Well-Lived Life. I’m doing my second read through this week, picking up all kinds of things this time that I missed on the first go-round.

After Hurricane Ian I put up this sign in our yard.

One of the things that particularly struck me was her being accused of toxic positivity near the end of the book where she talked about learning lessons from everything that happens to you.

Oh my gosh, there are some days I just want to give up on the human race. How in the world can anyone think positivity is toxic?

Toxic is one of those words that in the last 5 years or so have become a buzzword to classify anything that offends or triggers someone. But as points out in an eye-opening blog post, labeling everything toxic is in itself toxic behavior! I’m not going to go down that rabbit trail in my post here, but it’s a good, and I think important, read.

As I thought a lot about what someone could possibly mean by toxic positivity, I recall how it’s said that people who “look at the world through rose-colored glasses” seem to always look on the bright, or optimistic side of things. What can people possibly find wrong with that? When I was growing up, I’ve heard these eternal optimists referred to as “Pollyannas”. The dictionary defines Pollyanna as a person characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything. Heck, I aspire to that! But calling someone a Pollyanna is almost always done in a disparaging manner, and is, I suppose, the old-fashioned version of accusing someone of toxic positivity.

So….I did a little research. Toxic positivity is a BIG thing these days. But, as the graphic here indicates, according to Wikipedia, the concept of unrealistic positivity has been explored by psychologists as early as the 1980s, but the term toxic positivity was first used in a 2011 book called The Queer Art of Failure. It didn’t catch on as a thing though, as evidenced by an explosion of internet searches, until 2019. Guess what else exploded on the scene about that time? Whatever.

As Dr Gladys says (on Page 162 of the hardcover book), True optimism isn’t toxic, because focusing on the positive does not mean denying the negative. It does not mean we dissociate from our pain, whether it’s physical or emotional, or pretend that things are okay when they aren’t. Instead, it means we look for what’s wonderful anyway. We allow what hurts to hurt while continuing to search for the lesson in it and be grateful for the teaching.”

She further explains that toxic positivity may be a relatively new term, but the idea of it is old. Unbridled optimism can come off as denial, but a well-grounded optimist, as I consider myself to be, makes choices in all situations to look for the gratitude, the parts you have control over, the attitude you can take about the situation, the part that can be a teaching moment in your life, and considerations where it’s possible to find beauty from the ashes, no matter how bad the situation, at first glance, may appear to be.

I am under no illusion that there are no difficulties in life. We’ve had plenty of them, but each one served to make what comes after the pain better in some way. Another old saying that expresses this is “always look for the silver lining in the cloud.” I learned over the years not to wallow in the mud of life, but to get out of the dirt as quickly as possible and catalog the blessings and wisdom that came from the grimy experience. That is why, after Hurricane Ian last year, I put up a sign in our front yard urging folks to “Look For The Blessings!” There were many.

Having an optimistic personality and outlook on life is excellent for good physical and mental health. The Mayo Clinic lists these benefits of positive thinking:

· Increased life span

· Lower rates of depression

· Lower levels of distress and pain

· Greater resistance to illnesses

· Better psychological and physical well-being

· Better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease and stroke

· Reduced risk of death from cancer

· Reduced risk of death from respiratory conditions

· Reduced risk of death from infections

· Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress

That’s all pretty clinical, but what it boils down to is positive people are happier, more successful, live longer, less prone to depression, and cope with stress better. What’s not to like about being positive?

I had the privilege of attending lots of training sessions and studied scores of self-improvement literature from an early age. I had the advantage of having a wise, upbeat mom, and was raised in the sixties in a two-parent home. I knew I was loved, I wanted for nothing I needed, and I wasn’t exposed to bigotry, hatred, or social media during my formative years. The most tragic thing that happened in my childhood was the death of two grandparents, both events were treated as a natural part of the life cycle.

I am blessed with the ability to find the silver lining in every cloud and learn something from each difficult experience I go through.

Call my Pollyanna if you want. I’ll take that as a compliment. And anyone who thinks my positivity is toxic can go jump in the lake. I pity them.

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