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NEA News

When Too Much of a Good Attitude Becomes Toxic

Optimism and self-help strategies are important, but toxic positivity can take a toll on educators.
toxic positivity teachers
Published: January 5, 2021 Last Updated: January 5, 2021

Key Takeaways

  1. Health experts warn that just like anything done in excess, too much positivity can trivialize a person's pain.
  2. Research has long shown that suppressed emotions can lead to more stress on the body and brain.
  3. Different approaches exist to prevent toxic positivity and instead focus on acceptance and validation of difficult situations.

“Try not to think about it,” “you've got this,“ "we’re in this together.” You’ve probably heard these or similarly positive phrases intended to lift up the spirits of America’s educators, as you work double duty to make sure students have what they need during this pandemic, leading to high levels of exhaustion, stress, depleted capacity, and more.

If you’ve ever resented, rather than appreciated, these well-intentioned words, you’re not alone. While it may seem counterintuitive, these and other feel-good phrases may be more harmful than helpful. It’s called "toxic positivity." Here’s how it plays out.

Inauthentic Optimism

First, it’s important to note here that studies have shown the power of positive thinking. The Mayo Clinic, for example, lists several, including lower stress levels, stronger immunity, and an increase in life span. The snag comes in when too much positivity suppresses or trivializes a person’s pain or suffering.

Health experts from The Psychology Group out of Florida define toxic positivity as the overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state that results in the denial, minimization and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.

“Just like anything done in excess, when positivity is used to cover up or silence the human experience, it becomes toxic. By disallowing the existence of certain feelings, we fall into a state of denial and repressed emotions,” explains Jamie Long, a licensed clinical psychologist and co-owner of The Psychology Group.

Natalie Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told Washington Post’s Allyson Chiu that it’s like eating too much ice cream. “It’s really good and it makes us feel better, but you can overdo it. Then, it makes us sick,” adding that it can also look like “shoving ice cream into somebody’s face when they don’t feel like having ice cream. That’s not really going to make them feel better.”

Stifled Emotions

For educators, toxic positivity takes on various forms, including posters in the break room that say, “tomorrow is a new day” or “good vibes only,” administrators setting up a self-care session (during planning time!), or a table full of free, sometimes stale doughnuts to show teacher appreciation. And some educators are tired of it.

Brittany Wilson, a middle school teacher in Colorado, recently demonstrated her reaction to excessive positivity from district staff and administrators in a video posted to TikTok.  With her arms crossed and head thrown back, the caption reads, “Teachers are tired of hearing it.”

Wilson explains in the comment section that “it makes me feel like I’m failing even more since I don’t feel that positive now.”

Brittany Wilson: Teachers Are Tired of Hearing It

Subscribing to the idea that it’s always sunny when it’s not has its downfalls.

For decades, research has underscored that pent up emotions can lead to more stress on the body and brain., a health information site, points to two studies that support this claim. A 1987 study showed that when you’re asked not to think about something, it makes you more likely to think about it. The other study, from 1997, showed that suppressing feelings can cause more internal, psychological stress.

Samara Quintero, a licensed therapist at The Psychology Group says, “suppressed emotions can later manifest in anxiety, depression, and even physical illness.”

As the coronavirus pandemic approaches the one-year anniversary mark and school reopening plans remain uncertain—and your day still consists of teaching plus reporting, writing lesson plans, tracking students and parents, attending meeting, connecting with other teachers and education support professionals, making sure students have access to Wi-Fi, and more—it’s important to recognize the type of language that contributes to toxic positivity and what you can do about it.

Other Approaches

There are multiple ways to prevent toxic positivity, whether you find yourself giving it or receiving it. WeAreTeachers, for example, offers several suggestions that include working no more than your 40 hours a week, leaving work at work, and changing the narrative of the teacher martyr who works seven days a week, at all hours of the day and night.

Jessica Kirkland, a high school teacher in Virginia, did just that during the winter break. In a message shared on Twitter, she posted how she did “nothing for school. Refused to even think abt it.” Instead, she “journaled & ran,” wrote Kirkland.

Other methods include a balance to positive and negative emotions—or a “yes, and” approach. As an example, “I feel blessed to have a job and students who appreciate me, and the demands of hybrid teaching are making me consider switching careers.”

“When we give ourselves permission to hold multiple, seemingly conflicting truths in our minds at the same time, we can eliminate the tension between them and give room to all of our emotions—both positive and negative,” said Jenny Maenpaa, a licensed clinical social worker and author of Forward in Heel, to, a women’s online health site.

Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg and author of “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation,” penned in the New York Times, in 2014, that a combination of emotions is a better way.

“Just like anything done in excess, when positivity is used to cover up or silence the human experience, it becomes toxic. By disallowing the existence of certain feelings, we fall into a state of denial and repressed emotions,” explains Jamie Long of The Psychology Group.

“What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with ‘realism.’ Here’s how it works. Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.

“This simple process, which my colleagues and I call ‘mental contrasting,’ has produced powerful results in laboratory experiments. When participants have performed mental contrasting with reasonable, potentially attainable wishes, they have come away more energized and achieved better results compared with participants who either positively fantasized or dwelt on the obstacles.”

Another way is to change your language. This is more about validation and acceptance rather than brushing off someone’s feelings with blanket phrases. Here’s a list from The Minds Journal that suggests, for example replacing “just be positive,” with “I know it’s difficult right now and things can easily go wrong. But let’s think about what can go right.” Or, “It could be much worse.” Instead, try this: “This is really sad. I can understand what you’re feeling right now.”

Samara Quintero and Jamie Long of The Psychology Group say it’s about embracing a balanced approach to your emotions, setting healthy boundaries, and speaking your truth.

Instead of practicing toxic positivity, aim for balance and the acceptance of both good and bad emotions rather than all-or-nothing thinking,” says Quintero, while Long adds, “If you’re being influenced by toxic positivity, we encourage you to set healthy boundaries with anyone who passes judgment on your authentic experience and speak your truth. We get one chance at this beautiful, painful, imperfect life…embrace it entirely and you’ll reap the rewards of bountiful aliveness.”

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