The happiness movement is suffering from another overly simplistic interpretation of positivity: the belief that one should only allow positive emotions no matter how dire the situation. Susan David, author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life and popular ted talk speaker, discusses toxic positivity as being stuck in believing that only positive emotions should be allowed. The opposite scenario, where one is stuck in negative emotions, brooding, is equally maladaptive. Both represent rigid emotional responses when life calls for agility and flexibility. David asserts that emotional agility is where we feel and differentiate our emotions to inform our actions. This is essentially a form of emotional intelligence applied to our personal lives.
A recent google search revealed an article by verywellmind.com that advises against saying things like, “look on the bright side,” “everything happens for a reason,” or “happiness is a choice.” Such phrases shut down emotions and shames the one struggling. Instead, they advise we empathize and listen.
While I don’t disagree with this advice, I also don’t agree with it either. The advice is ill-advised in certain circumstances, and exactly right in others.
It’s a bad idea when delivered as a platitude or meant (whether intentionally or not) to deflect or repress difficult emotions.
They might be good topics once negative emotions have been felt, acknowledged, and processed, and one is ready to move out of excessive brooding into finding solutions. However, what is good advice has become cliche, so to be useful they should be discussed with sincerity, as points of discussion instead of advice, and as part of a larger conversation.
How are we supposed to decide which scenario, especially since such conversations often arise unexpectedly and in locations not conducive to a heart-to-heart?
Perhaps what matters is the quality rather than the quantity of the interaction. Eye contact, being completely present, and responding with empathy and compassion with even a simple, “Oh I’m sorry. That sounds so hard” is a simple and effective response that is appropriate for almost any circumstance.
Sometimes we are afforded time and sufficient privacy to allow for deeper conversations. Providing the gift of compassionate listening, acceptance, affirmation, and support can make all the difference to someone struggling with difficult circumstances. Subsequent conversations could reveal the speaker’s learning, growth, and progress, in which case new perspectives, self-determination, and post-traumatic growth may be appropriate subjects. An ongoing lack of progress suggests the speaker might need other forms of support.
Also, I’m noticing that these narratives put the onus on the listener to do the right thing. And of course, we want to do so. At the same time, the advice about toxic positivity and emotional agility is also for the person struggling, which inevitably will be us.
In the end, we have to work through our challenging emotions ourselves, eventually moving through denial or brooding. We may need to learn to ask for help when we’re in over our heads, give ourselves time and space to process and heal, seek the proper support (I’m a fan of therapy), accept responsibility for feeling and naming our emotional truth, and acting accordingly.
In other words, our emotional intelligence must extend to us managing our inner and outer worlds, including being authentic in a way that is appropriate for the situation. Sharing gut-wrenching emotions with strangers and co-workers is usually not recommended, but we still need to respond to the dreaded “how are you?”. “I’m managing,” “I’m making progress,” “one day at a time,” “I’m working on lining up support,” “I’ve had better days… thank you for asking,” delivered with whatever you’re feeling, are examples of responses that avoid over-sharing or false facades.
On the other hand, the tail wagging the dog has its place. Discreet doses of arranging our faces and bodies into expressions of happiness, wonder, confidence, or power can trigger the respective emotions. Exaggerated displays in private can be a barrel of laughs, and remind me that I don’t have to be so serious all the time. Even grief needs a little levity, which is its own form of healing.