Nontoxic Equanimity

Having written posts on toxic negativity and positivity in the past, I was really happy to hear the last part of an NPR presentation on toxic positivity this morning. I wanted to hear it, so I searched and couldn’t find it. I was bummed, because I liked the fact that the therapist being interviewed talked about how not all positivity is bad and that some negativity may well be justified.

angry suna
This was my sweaty face of negativity when I found out someone spoofed my Instagram account yesterday.

Finally, my brain kicked in and I found the article on the website of my local station, KUT. They have great original programming, too! If you get a chance, read the transcript or listen to the interview.

So, in her discussion with the KUT reporter, Junice Rockman makes the point that a lot of us are looking for the good things in life right now, since there’s so much ickiness going on in 2020 (obviously she didn’t say ickiness). And that’s fine. As the interview pointed out:

“…there is nothing wrong with positivity, as long as it is not used to:

  • deny
  • disconnect
  • disregard
  • disassociate, or
  • dismiss someone else’s ideas.”

That rang true to me. Some of the things I’ve heard and memes I’ve read seem to insist that you’re not good enough if you can’t always be positive. Your just not trying hard enough, don’t love yourself enough, or are just trying to be Debbie Downer.

Who me? I’m Penney Positive!

The heart of the matter is that it’s unrealistic to expect people to be either happy all the time, or eternally sad failures. To me that’s just common sense. Rockman says this kind of all-or-nothing thinking doesn’t work.

It’s like a pendulum. It has to be all one thing or not. It’s helpful for us to move away from that all-or-nothing thinking. It doesn’t have to be either-or. It can be both.

Junice Rockman, KUT, 7/29/2020
By the way, to make me positive, just show me a picture of my son and his little family. Aww. Photo shamelessly appropriated and used without permission.

And that’s it. We can be positive about one thing and negative about another, and they can coexist! These days a lot of us are having a hard time. We have lost jobs, are lonely, are sick, or upset by the news. That is absolutely okay, and it can’t hurt to also find what’s still pretty good. Really, isn’t life always this way?

Even in good times we have challenges. My goal is to have a healthy viewpoint and put my feelings into perspective. That means when I climb out of despair, I don’t run straight up Pollyanna Mountain! When I talk to people in my life, I’m going to mention things that bother me as well as things that bring joy.

And if someone judges me for veering off to one side or another, they may need to check for their own toxicity and cut me some slack. I’ll return the favor. My brain is too full to be all judgy right now. I love everybody who’s doing the best they can.

Now, onto the challenges of the day!

Toxic Negativity: Much Less Controversial

My post yesterday about toxic positivity led to a couple of really good discussions, both in person and in chat. I can’t tell you how great it feels to know that I can start conversations that lead to greater understanding and new insights. So, thanks to all of you who gave me input yesterday. One big point that came out is that choosing to see the good in your life is not the same as forcing yourself to be positive and ignoring everything else. I’m taking that to heart.

Negative Nellies (and Neds)

Nothing good will come of this.

As for the opposite of toxic positivity, I think we all have had experiences with people who seem resolutely focused on seeing the negative in everything that goes on. I doubt that there’s anyone out there trying to make the point that focusing on what’s wrong is a good strategy for a peaceful and fulfilling life (and obviously not for contentment!).

I know I’ve had people in my friend, church, and work circles that can take a neutral comment and find the bad in it, and who can stop a happy discussion dead in its tracks. You can see people leaving the break room when they come in, suddenly having to excuse themselves in conversations, and getting that deer in the headlights look during meetings. Trying to bring the conversation back around to something else always tends to be a challenge with these folks.

Of course, they have their good points. They can be intelligent, hard working, generous, and empathetic. They just can’t see the good in the world, for reasons only they know. That makes people avoid them and reinforces their negative viewpoint.

Can It Be Cured?

People are just who they are.

Not by us regular folks. We generally can’t fix people like this by pointing out how their behavior comes across; in fact, that reinforces negativity. Professional help can do wonders, and I’ve seen that, so there’s hope if people are willing to work on it.

What to do, then? I always try to make the negative ones feel heard and respected, which is important to me and how I’d want to be treated. After all, their feelings are theirs and they are legitimate, for them. I do try to gently suggest another perspective or move to another topic when possible.

It does make me want to flee.

It’s interesting, though, that toxically negative people also tend to be ones who doggedly hold on to their agenda and actively resist changing the subject or manage to turn any topic into their negative item of the day (a trait that really amazes me when I sit back and look at it dispassionately). I knew someone who could take a conversation about chocolate ice cream and turn it into the problems with their child. Amazing, really.

So yeah, negative people need support, friendship, and love. But, if you are someone who get affected by the moods of those around them or have empathic tendencies, you may just have to choose your own well being over the needs of the negative. I do that, when I can, and limit my interactions with negative-biased people I can’t avoid.

Realistic Thoughts

A great way to deal with the negative folks is a nice bath in rose milk, a fizzy facial, and red stuff in your hair. Okay, that’s what works for ME.

Like the extra-positive folks we talked about yesterday, people aren’t all on the extremes. There’s lots of middle ground. Many of us who have an automatic panic over-reaction to change or bad news just need a little time to process before looking at things more realistically. Guilty as charged. Talking things through works, once we calm down. And people who look a little too positively at things can benefit from being reminded to consider the possible consequences before jumping into things that look like a good idea on the surface.

I had to end on a bit of humor!

In the end, we can use our tendencies to help balance each other out if we’re patient and realize that folks just are wired differently or react to experiences in different ways. Perhaps the extremes won’t be able to modify their behavior, but most of us can listen and learn. Let’s be patient with each other and talk together about how our internal processes work differently, rather than putting down people who react differently. It might work!

What’s This about Toxic Positivity?

I live around people who focus a lot on the good in their lives and strive to present themselves as happy. I respect that very much and love them for it. Everyone in my household has a gratitude practice, and two of them write about it in their journals every day. These are all very admirable things to do. I’m glad these practices are good for their mental well being.

Happy happy, joy joy! So what if it’s windy and my hair hurts!

I spend my “gratitude time” noticing what is going on right now that brings me joy. Yesterday I saw a coyote cross the road, then a bluebird flew by. Happiness! Today I smelled some lotion that brought happy memories to me. Living in the moment is also healing for the soul.

But sometimes, lately often, I notice people who simply don’t allow themselves to pay heed to or allow themselves react outwardly to the challenging parts of their lives. Some people close to me seem to want to force away anything that would cause pain, worry or stress to present a very cheerful persona. What I’m having trouble with is when people judge themselves and others (say, me) for not always being happy. Taken to an extreme, that’s toxic positivity.

Sometimes I just can’t do it. Like, hey, I’m annoyed by that backwards apostrophe.

I’m not the only person to notice it. I read this article recently, and it helped me see why I was feeling uncomfortable with the pressure to always present myself as happy. It’s why I’d practically growl at people who’d chirp “Smile!” at me if I was presenting myself as neutral or concerned. “Look, I’m thinking about my dead dog. I don’t want to smile.” Here’s how it feels to me:

A lot of us feel pressure to come across as though we are living our best lives. And I’m not saying everyone who says they are happy is actually not, or people who try to push “positive vibes” onto you don’t have your best interests at heart – but covering up your true feelings with layers of fake happiness is really not it.

Welcome to the world of toxic positivity: The trend which is ruining our lives, by Hayley Green

Especially right now, I have started to feel like I let my family down if I admit that I’m stressed at work, or had a bad experience, or even just feel a bit grumpy. I’m not negative all the time; in fact, I’m not positive all the time. I think my base is sort of neutral, so I’m not a little ray of sunshine nor do I walk under a dark cloud. I just experience what’s going on right now, which can be good, bad, or in between. It’s me. It’s how I am.

Carlton would rather hide from negativity.

I’m not alone, thankfully. One of my friends, who thinks about mortality a lot, wrote her own obituary today, and in it she said:

She spent her life resisting toxic positivity. Not because she didn’t see goodness in the world but because she saw all of it and didn’t deny the whole story.

JD, her obituary, Facebook

That’s okay with me. In fact, it made me happy to read what my friend said!

I found this handy example of how you can validate someone’s feelings without making them feel like they have to fake being happy with everything:

Image from sitswithwhit on Instagram

We’re All Different

This is NOT my message to my readers!

Look, I’m not knocking people who have found that focusing on the positive has improved their lives. I’m pleased for them, and encourage them to keep up that practice, because it works for them. I just hope that they can allow other emotions when they truly are valid.

It seems to me that it takes a lot of effort to push down anything that’s not 100% cheerful. It probably takes as much effort to be endlessly negative (I do know some of those folks, too, the ones who can take anything you say and find the down side).

So please, do what works for you to cope with the challenges you are facing every day. But consider that not everyone is cut out for being happy at all times, and that some of us don’t even want to. Let’s enjoy our differences and be patient with our friends and family who cope differently than we do. Then we can have some genuinely non-toxic positivity in our lives.

As a donkey, I make people happy, but I’m sort of an Eeyore. I can’t change.