Do You Suffer From Toxic Positivity?

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

Do you have any friends, relatives, acquaintances who meet every challenge with a smile? Perhaps these folks respond to every new event with an upbeat, sunny attitude… no matter what rolls their way. If you have been in their homes, you might have found a positive platitude on every wall. Even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, and all the other signs of the end times that we seem to be experiencing here in 2020, there are those folks who meet it all with the absolute assurance that everything is and will be just fine! 

It is good to have hope and certainly to experience joy. But always looking on the bright side, no matter what, can keep you from being able to deal with struggle and pain. Relentless positivity can be as damaging as always being the naysayer. 

When taken to the extreme, positivity can become toxic.

It used to be popular a decade or so ago to teach congregations about the various “spiritual types.” It seems to me that toxic positivity can be a weakness; the shadow side of one spiritual way of being. We are all spiritual, but in differing ways. We are different from each other in the sense that there are at least four distinct ways to be “spiritual,” according to the common description of spiritual types.  

There is a circular image (the spirituality wheel) that was used to teach the characteristics of the four spiritual types some years ago. Individuals would be asked to answer a variety of questions to determine where to locate oneself or one’s church within the circle. The point was to understand that we are not all the same, and that all of our ways of being spiritual are just that, our ways of being. If we have a better understanding of who we are, we can better understand each other and why we need each other. 

The wheel was based on the idea that some of us react to what happens by thinking first, while others feel first. Whichever is primary is determinative. This is not to say that a “feeler” doesn’t also think, or that a “thinker” doesn’t also feel. Yet one can imagine the difference it may make if your primary orientation is one that comes from the heart, rather than one that comes from your head, and vice versa. 

Having enough self-knowledge to understand that your response might be “naturally” similar to another’s or “naturally” very different—and that all our perspectives when lived out authentically are of equal value and needed (certainly)—is crucial if our goal is to create the beloved community that includes everyone.

The spiritual wheel helped church members see that not only did we approach life either oriented by the lens of the intellect or with emotional intelligence, but also that we differ in how we take in and how we conceptualize information. Maybe some of you need concrete examples, and/or a familiar image, to spark your imagination. Then there are others who find that pre-existing images only stifle their creativity and far prefer a practice that seeks to empty out any chatter in their field of dreams in order to make space for what may appear at any given moment. (If you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality types, this is similar to the differences between sensors and intuitors.) 

Of the four quadrants on the spiritual wheel, there is one that includes those who know what they know; and who conceptualize through concrete images and through particular relationships with particular people, AND who navigate through the world with emotions. When they seek to meet their spiritual needs, the questions they ask of a new community might be these: “Who will be my friend? Who will bring out the divine in me? Are there people here that I can be with whom I might help find their (own) divinity?”

They come to church, they seek spiritual communities, they are in the world with memories of and yearnings for close relationships. They want to be with others living their part in learning to be authentic with each other.    

In more authoritative expressions of faith communities, the figure worthy of their devotion is likely a parent figure, one they long to please. In less hierarchical expressions, “the divine” might be imagined as a close friend. There are many hymns in the Christian tradition that imagine Jesus this way: “Jesus, my best friend, my intimate partner.”

It doesn’t matter if the divine is conceptualized as the parent or as a close friend; the quest of the person who fits this particular spiritual type is to know and to follow the rules of conduct, whatever it might mean to be in that particular community to be in right relationship. Sometimes the rules include “you will obey gladly, and with a happy heart.” When that is the idea that governs right relationship, it is an appeal to the shadow side of the emotive-connected way of being spiritual. It is an attempt to squish emotional intelligence down into just one feeling: happy all the time.

This used to be called pietism. And pietism was actually one of the many expressions of Christianity following the Reformation. It was part of Lutheranism and became a strain in Methodism. It was a major influence on the Church of the Brethren and several other denominations, including some that began to form the Evangelical movement in the early 1900s in America, particularly in what became known as the Holiness Movement.

Adherents were to follow the rules of conduct gladly, with a happy heart. There was room for little other expression of spirituality in this form of Protestant Christianity.

Of course, being pious to an extreme isn’t the only way, and it isn’t a healthy way, even for a person who is all heart and for whom being spiritual is all about relationships with people.

Every faith community should include hopeful, helpful people with emotional intelligence. But approaching every struggle and appeasing every pain with a set of only upbeat positive platitudes is not a good thing.

Modern psychologists have defined what they have come to call “toxic positivity” as an “excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations.” It is a way to cope with hopelessness, and it can become pervasive in times of chaos and uncertainty. Thus, there have been a lot of articles about it in the mainstream press lately.

Pietism ended up producing folks who were good at practicing denial, minimization, and an invalidation of the breadth of human emotional experience.

Toxic positivity—or what we call pietism—today shows up in everyday life when people:

  • Hide or mask their true feelings
  • Try to “just get on with it” by stuffing/dismissing their emotions
  • Feel guilty for feeling what they feel
  • Attempt to minimize other people’s experiences with “feel good” quotes or statements
  • Try to give someone perspective by saying “it could be worse” instead of validating the other person’s emotional experience
  • Shame or chastise others for expressing frustration or anything other than positivity
  • Try to brush off the things that are bothering them by saying “It is what it is.”

We are certainly living in times that evoke all kinds of coping behaviors to deal with the grief that accompanies chaos, disruption, and the future looking far different from what we may have imagined. Some are dealing by retreating into the familiar “holier than thou” way of pietism.

We need the feelers, those with emotional intelligence, who are comfortable in the language of all the emotions. We especially need folks to lead us through this time of grief.

Popular blogger and author Mark Manson says this:

Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.

Mark Manson is great at helping us understand (through his various books) that even though the planet is warming, governments are failing, economies are collapsing, and everyone is perpetually offended or offensive, we are living in a time when we are overall freer, healthier, and wealthier than any people in human history. We have access to technology, education, and communication our ancestors couldn’t even dream of. 

These are all things to feel hopeful about, yet what we see is pervasive hopelessness… with a sprinkle of toxic positivity. 

We can do better. We, as a maturing spiritual community, can offer better.  It is time to be not only more honest with ourselves, but authentically more connected, to offer connection that includes the honest expression and respect for the full range of our emotions.

I know there are those who lead with their feelings, who are oriented first to the web of relationships within which they exist, and want to be in, in this congregation. 

I know who some of you with heart are, because I have been trying create circles of care. I don’t want any member left out of close and regular connection within this faith community! I want everyone who is a member or friend to be in a circle of connection.

I started this effort to have everyone in a loop of connection, with those I think or have heard are well connected. I asked who they know and who they regularly keep up with. I have already found seven people I am calling Circle Captains. They identified who is in their circle of care.  Of course, there was some overlap, so we sorted all that out. No Captain has more than seven families, couples, or individuals to reach out to on a regular basis.

In order to include everyone who ought to be included, I need to find a few more Captains. I need more folks who know what it feels like to be reached out to, cared about, who respect the heart spirit of UUCSH and want to extend its reach. 

Could that be you? Will you take responsibility for extending the heart of this faith community to everyone? Let me know.

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