Let Your Friends and Family Be Sad This Year

Always trying to gloss over adversity? You may be guilty of "toxic positivity."

An image of a person with their head open and a low charging sign above their brain
What's "toxic positivity"? Something that should be eliminated from your relationships.
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There’s an episode of Parks and Rec where Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) and Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) are expecting a child, and Chris can’t stop himself from catering to Ann’s every need. As she sits on the couch, feeling bloated and exhausted, he zips from room to room, making smoothies, Googling remedies and issuing positive profundities.

At the end of the show, Anna points out that while she appreciates his efforts, none of this is making her feel any better. In fact, he’s driving her up the wall. Just once, she wants to be able to vent about something and hear “That sucks” in return — not another proposed solution to all of her problems.

Chris is one of popular media’s best recent examples of “toxic positivity,” which Harvard Business Review defines as “the assumption that despite a person’s emotional pain and turmoil, they should only have a positive mindset.”

It’s counterintuitive to view any effort in positivity as bad for us, let alone toxic — especially in the social media age, where having fun/all the answers appears to be everyone’s endgame — but too often, forcing oneself to feel good can comes at the expense of feeling what’s right in front of you.

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In Ann’s case, that might have meant the immediate physical discomfort of being pregnant, or the impending emotional uncertainty of motherhood. Neither a mango smoothie nor a rah-rah speech can eliminate those feelings — and the key here is that they shouldn’t. As Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, a licensed clinical psychologist, shared with HBR, “Not only is it okay to not feel ‘okay,’ it is essential. An abnormal emotional response to an abnormal situation IS normal.”

When we don’t feel empowered or equipped to experience and enunciate our primary emotions, our secondary emotions start charging in…which tend to leave us confused, isolated or overwhelmed.

For example, say you’re feeling anxious for an upcoming presentation at work. You confide in a friend over a beer, who tells you that you have nothing to worry about. It’ll go fine, you got this, don’t stress. That’s a nice thing to say, in theory, and it’s likely that in their mind, you really don’t have anything to worry about. You’re great! Of course you’ll get through it. But it’s a slippery slope, too, because we tend to feel ashamed when our anxiety goes unvalidated. We feel ridiculous for feeling anxious in the first place.

If the stakes are a lot higher — you bombed the presentation, you’ve been fired, you now don’t know how you’re going pay rent or feed your kids — is a slap on the shoulder and a “Keep the faith!” going to do much to turn you around? No, probably not. A pep talk might do some good at some point (plus some advice and an employee referral), but those steps shouldn’t come at the expense of allowing yourself to process what’s occurred and how you feel about it.

Consider this an unconventional, yet critical call-to-action to allow your friends and family the space to feel sad this year. Or irritated, or angry, or altogether not-fantastic. Let people sit with their feelings, down at their rockiest bottoms. Positivity is never permanent, and chasing perfection is a waste of time.

It’s tough to see people you love struggle with anything, and it’s always going to be tempting to “fix” it — a pursuit that sometimes offers an outlet for one’s own struggles — but you’re a better help, in the long run, if you just lend an ear. They’ll let you know when they could use a hand instead.

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