The last few months have been unprecedented and extremely demanding in every possible way of all of us. Whether that be due to COVID-19, the conversations on racism or the 2020 election, this year has been difficult, to say the least. If my obsession with the Enneagram test has taught me anything, it’s that we all handle difficult circumstances in different ways. But what happens when our individual ways of coping collide, and we begin to create even greater stress for those around us? Well, toxic positivity is one potential consequence.
Toxic positivity sounds like an impossible oxymoron. However, the term refers to forced positivity that essentially negates the real concerns of people attempting to voice their lived experiences. It’s unrealistic and naïve to think that everyone can be positive all the time.
Whitney Goodman is a psychotherapist in Miami who categorizes toxic positivity as a multitude of different actions: a) telling people they shouldn’t be feeling what they’re feeling, b) implying that people are negative if they aren’t actively looking for the silver lining in everything, c) only acknowledging the “good” without also addressing the “bad” and d) shaming people for having bad days or experiences. Though it’s usually done with good intentions, glazing over another person’s experiences by telling them to “look at the bright side” of something that is directly affecting them essentially shames that person into being positive in order to accommodate our own discomfort. What we fail to recognize here is that it’s OK to be uncomfortable. It’s OK to allow ourselves a few moments of discomfort to support our fellow human beings and/or mitigate the circumstances that led to their being upset to begin with.
In my opinion, toxic positivity stems from differences in our individual personalities, experiences and communication skills. Do we recognize how our own experiences affect our perception? Are we in tune with the matters that affect those around us? And if the answer to either of those questions is no, how can we improve to become better people and better health care providers?
To help put this in perspective, let’s use a hypothetical example. Say your classmate failed a practical exam that counts for 30% of their grade. They are upset and choose to confide in you. Rather than comforting them and asking them if it’s OK for you to show them some tips that helped you pass your practical, you tell them, “Hey, it’s going to be OK. Don’t sweat it. Just do better next time.”
While there are clearly good intentions behind what you said, it’s unrealistic for you to expect your classmate to relax when the practical counts for 30% of their grade and they are looking to specialize. Maybe you aren’t planning to specialize, so to you, it really would be no big deal. It’s also unrealistic to expect a better future outcome when you aren’t offering any real help or solutions. And if you can’t offer any solutions or just don’t know what to say, most of the time, just listening to someone express their hurt is more helpful than anything else.
Let’s use another [not so hypothetical] example. With the conversation on racism being amplified after George Floyd’s murder, many people still do not want to address the issues that ultimately led to his untimely death (even if they were sympathetic to his passing). Having a conversation that acknowledges the systems and societal/cultural beliefs that contributed to this injustice may directly or indirectly implicate some of our individual and/or collective beliefs. It also places responsibility on each of us to put in the effort to do better moving forward — and all of this can be uncomfortable. But again, that’s OK.
It’s OK to be uncomfortable because that is when growth happens. Having these conversations and being uncomfortable allows us the opportunity to grow together, on both an individual and collective level.
So, how can we be positive without being toxic? Whitney Goodman lists “helpful positivity” as:
- Allowing people to take their time getting to beneficial conclusions
- Recognizing that humans naturally have a variety of emotions — and it’s totally healthy to experience all of them (think about the Disney movie, “Inside Out”)
- Understanding that not all situations have a silver lining (and that we will still experience happiness)
- Encouraging emotional expression of others and knowing that sometimes people have to process and move through pain to experience happiness
As dental students and health care providers, it is imperative that we learn emotional maturity and be able to empathize with the people who cross our paths in a healthy way. Otherwise, are we really competent providers?
~Rand Khasawneh, North Carolina ’22, District 4 Community Empowerment Co-Chair