By: Loveli Brown
False positivity is the positive attitude we force into situations where positivity is not called for. If this doesn’t sound awkward to you, the following analogy may help you see that it is. Assume positivity is akin to sugar – it is sweet and enhances the flavors of some bland foods, making them taste more appealing. We all love happiness and positive attitudes, thoughts, and feelings (Ford & Mauss, 2014), just the way we love the sweetness of sugar. Hence, added sweetness to bland foods is similar to how a positive attitude can help us deal with mundane tasks and everyday hurdles.
However, some foods just don’t go well with sugar. Indeed, adding sugar to those foods may cause them to taste awful. Instead, these foods may need a pinch of salt, a spoon of vinegar, or some other seasoning to become more palatable.
Therefore, just as we shouldn’t reach for the sugar jar to season every dish we are served, we shouldn’t sugarcoat every negative experience life puts on our plates. Instead, we’re better served by choosing the most appropriate reaction.
False positivity can come about in two ways: either other people give our experiences a positive spin, or we do it to ourselves. But how do other people bring false positivity into our emotional experiences? It usually starts with rosy pictures or optimistic comments about an upsetting situation.
Yet, these positive efforts of others can create social pressure and a denial of our true emotions.
Below are some examples illustrating how false positivity can be dismissive toward our feelings and emotional experiences. In some cases, false positivity keeps us in the same situation that caused our initial reaction.
● Break-up of a relationship: Khalil opens up to his best friend about how sad he is about his break-up with his former partner Joe. His best friend says, “Good riddance! You are better looking than Joe, anyway.”
● Loss of a parent: Kyung has taken care of his mom, a fragile lady in her eighties until she lost her battle against cancer. At the funeral, people told him that she was old anyway, and at least he didn’t have to take care of her anymore.
● Marital dissatisfaction: Roberta’s husband talks down to her at every chance and treats her like his maid. Tatiana’s mother thinks Tatiana is overreacting. “It could be worse; he could be one of those men who beat his wife,” she says.
● Job loss: After losing her job, Jolene took to social media to talk about how hard it is to find another position that matches her skill set. Most of the comments on her post included phrases such as “everything will be alright,” “just stay positive,” “you got this,” or “have good vibes only.”
How to Avoid False Positivity
Now that we understand what false positivity is and how it manifests in our lives, we can take steps to prevent it. Here are a few suggestions to help you avoid false positivity.
Accept your emotions even if they are negative.
Life can’t always be joyful. Inevitably, we all experience times of distress or hardship.
Accepting our emotions allows us to learn how to deal with these situations. This acceptance can provide us with beneficial changes in our lives and make us more emotionally resilient in the long run.
Ground yourself in facts and avoid positive spins.
When faced with an adverse situation, ignoring the core problem or giving it a positive spin doesn’t solve it. In fact, it might even make the situation worse by avoiding its causes. For instance, telling someone who lost their job that “everything will be okay in the end” or “that job was unfulfilling anyway” doesn’t solve their immediate problem, which is to be able to afford their basic needs, or their emotional needs, which are to feel supported. Nor does false positivity delve into the reason for this loss, addressing which can help them find a job or minimally understand why they might have difficulties getting hired.
Don’t judge others’ feelings.
Unless we avoid all human contact, we can’t run away from observing others suffer or when they try to talk to us about their emotions. If someone is telling you about something upsetting, try to be empathetic. Even if you were to react differently in the same situation, judging or dismissing their negative emotional reactions won’t benefit anyone. In most cases, people tell you about these situations because they trust you, and they need someone to listen and validate their experiences to help them make sense of their situation and heal.
Seek proper support.
If we are dealing with negative emotions, it helps us heal to talk about how we feel. Yet, we might need to be selective about who we are opening up to. Sometimes the people closest to us don’t have the emotional maturity or empathy to understand what we are going through. If that’s the case, you might consider talking to a therapist or joining a support group to share your experiences with others in similar situations.
Provide solid support.
When a friend or a loved one tells us about a problem, most of us utter words of support without even thinking about whether we are actually supportive. That’s why many of us believe we are helping them when we say phrases like “everything will be fine” or “it could be much worse.” So how can we support them without invalidating their emotions and experiences? Here are a few examples you might try:
● I understand how stressful that might be.
● I am sorry this happened to you. Let me know how I can help you.
● That must be really hard. Is there anything I can do to support you?
Remember, there will be times when false positivity may be hard to recognize as it typically hides within well-meaning comments and encouragements. We can avoid false positivity by learning to recognize its signs and developing strategies to respond to difficult circumstances more authentically.
● Ford, B., & Mauss, I. (2014). The paradoxical effects of pursuing positive emotion. In J. Gruber & J. T. Moskowitz (Eds.), Positive emotion: Integrating the light sides and dark sides (pp. 363–382). Oxford University Press.
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