Coronavirus pandemic: When positivity can backfire

April 23, 2020 11:49 AM

Popularized by psychotherapist Whitney Goodman, “dismissive” or “toxic positivity” entails a kneejerk reaction to negative tidings wherein a person rushes in with positive comments without processing their emotions or leaving “space for validation/understanding.”

Coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19, nationwide lockdown, Whitney Goodman,, COVID hotspot, nationwide lockdown, latest news coronavirus outbreakIndividuals may inflict toxic positivity on others or themselves.

By Aruna Sankaranarayanan

COVID-19: “I can’t understand the fuss over Corona-sharona virus. It’s just a flu.” “Indians won’t succumb to Covid-19. We are hardy and resilient.” “Stop worrying. This is just a phase. We’ll be partying soon.” While you probably heard such flippant statements before our nationwide lockdown, you are now bombarded with news and views that portend gloom and doom. But, even now, when we seem to be living out a dystopian movie, some people cannot but help dismiss any concerns or worries relating to the virus. I am not alluding to people allaying each other’s fears or panic-stricken thoughts. Instead, I am referring to a cognitive bias wherein people avoid confronting painful emotions.

Popularized by psychotherapist Whitney Goodman, “dismissive” or “toxic positivity” entails a kneejerk reaction to negative tidings wherein a person rushes in with positive comments without processing their emotions or leaving “space for validation/understanding.”

Individuals may inflict toxic positivity on others or themselves. In many situations, the person means well, but because they have a very low threshold for tolerating uncomfortable emotions, be it guilt, grief, frustration or angst, they prefer to evade the vexing issue.

Goodman maintains that having “space to process your emotions” is a vital component of self-growth. Unless we allow ourselves to make sense of our feelings, we cannot transcend them. While this does not imply that we should wallow in self-pity or reside in the doldrums of despair, we need to acknowledge the gravitas of a situation. So, if a person is confronted with a recent cancer diagnosis, she needs time and space to grapple with the myriad anxieties this type of news is likely to engender.

However, if the person has a tendency to dismiss bleak thoughts, she may reassure herself within minutes by convincing herself that she will be fine. On the other hand, a person prone to depressive musings may persuade himself that the end is nigh. Neither outright positivity nor a dour sepulchral outlook is healthy. Though most people are aware of the perils of chronic dejection, fewer are cognizant of the pitfalls of toxic positivity.

By refusing to accept a threat, whether to yourself or another, may help you in the short-term, a pattern of denial is unlikely to bode well in the long run. According to educator, Mary Elizabeth Dean, denial may propel you to “to engage in unhealthy behaviors” or compel you to persist in a toxic situations or relationships. In addition to jeopardizing your personal growth and well-being, dismissive positivity may also endanger relationships. For example, if a close friend confides in you that he is very worried about his brother who is currently in a COVID hotspot, and you try to assuage his fears by immediately replying, “By positive. It could be worse.” Your friend, unconvinced by your consolation, feels let down and misunderstood. If this pattern of interaction continues whenever he bares his heart to you, he may soon stop opening up or even feeling close to you.

According to Goodman, one of the most touching gifts you can give others and yourself is the acceptance of grief during disturbing times. So, instead of hastening headlong to mitigate a person’s tribulations, you must first validate what the person is experiencing. Even if you think a person is overreacting, denying or devaluing their feelings is unlikely to be cathartic. Conversely, if you first commiserate, there is a greater likelihood that you will stir a chord in your friend.

If you are tongue-tied when a friend spills his woes to you, you may demonstrate your empathy. Simply saying, “I can imagine what you are feeling” or “I know your pain” or a tacit nod of the head can convey your acceptance of their feelings. If you are flummoxed about a person’s feelings, you may also exhort information by asking the person to describe what they are undergoing.

After validating your friend’s feelings thus, you may try to lift her spirits, if the situation warrants. However, be sensitive that a person may need more time to work through his emotions before coming around. So, if the person continues to exude negativity, Goodman advocates that try to coax them out of their bleakness by reassuring them. Let the person know that faith can sometimes be shattered and a person may dislike themselves now and then. Gradually and gently, you may get them to realize that they can change their gloomy outlook by reframing their thoughts to more salubrious ones.

In these uncertain and unsettling times, being positive is vital. However, this does not imply that we ignore the threat we potentially face, both individually and collectively. Besides following protocols for safety, we may need to assuage ourselves and our loved ones every now and then. But instead of mouthing platitudes of positivity mechanistically, we may acknowledge and validate our feelings of insecurity and doubt. Once we have sorted through the tangled web of our emotions, we may lean on pillars of positivity to survive and hopefully transcend these trying times.

The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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