Community Psychiatry’s Leela Magavi, M.D. was featured in HeloGiggles discussing the topic of “Toxic Positivity”.

Sometimes it’s better to deal with emotions the hard way.

Morgan Noll | HelloGiggles | September 15, 2020

Here’s something we can probably all agree on: Being told to “calm down” is never effective. Instead of inspiring an instant wave of relaxation, those pesky little words often have the opposite effect of calming someone down, leading to feelings of frustration, invalidation, and even more anxiety. Similarly, telling someone who’s struggling emotionally to just “be happy” or “look on the bright side,” while well intentioned, can actually do more harm than good. This tendency to rush to the positive is called “toxic positivity,” which Dr. Leela Magavi—board-certified adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist—explains as “individuals’ need to avoid or divert attention from painful thoughts and memories.”

Amidst a global pandemic, systemic racism, environmental devastation, and more this year, it’s almost certain that painful thoughts have been in abundance with people across the world—and toxic positivity has become a common response to the daily upset of the news. But with coronavirus (COVID-19)-related deaths nearing 200,000 and wildfires sweeping across the West Coast, it’s clear that the world isn’t okay right now, so why are we pretending to be? Dr. Magavi explains that the tendency toward toxic positivity often comes from a discomfort with having unpleasant or negative emotions (which is often culturally and societally ingrained) and especially comes out in those who have solution-oriented or “how do we fix it now?” personalities. “When it comes to emotions, though,” she says, “emotions ebb and flow. It doesn’t work so quickly that you can just tell somebody to feel better or to be positive and they’ll feel better right away.”

Dr. Magavi further emphasizes why things just aren’t that simple, explaining, “When the listener is then telling you, essentially, [to] stop speaking, just be happy, or turn on that switch, that ability to speak openly on a safe platform is eradicated and that hyperactivity and portion of the brain that really needs to calm down is not able to.”

How can you avoid toxic positivity with yourself or others?

Lean into your feelings. Though no one wants to hear it, one of the best ways to deal with sadness, depression, anxiety, trauma, or any other emotion is to actually deal with it. Instead of pushing your or other peoples’ emotions to the side, both Dr. Seide and Dr. Magavi recommend journaling or going to therapy to help process them. In the context of toxic positivity, Dr. Seide says therapy is especially helpful because it’s a space to talk openly about your pain without worrying about making someone uncomfortable. “There’s this acknowledgment that that’s what the relationship is for,” she explains. “You don’t have to be okay. You don’t have to make small talk. You can just dive right in and say, ‘I had the worst day.'”

Evaluate your own relationship with emotions. Whether you’re presently struggling or not, Dr. Magavi recommends that everyone take the time to identify the way they personally respond to different emotions, like sadness, anger, anxiety, etc. “Everyone has a different sensation emotionally but also in their body,” she says. “So if individuals are able to [identify their feelings] independently, they can be better when they are helping friends, neighbors, colleagues because they understand that it’s not the same for everyone.”

To do this, Dr. Magavi suggests thinking of each of your feelings “like a fish going through the lake, just gliding past” you. Then, she recommends naming each emotion with statements like “I’m feeling sad right now,” sitting with that emotion, taking deep breaths, and resisting any urges to judge or dismiss those emotions. Next, “you can think about what you need to do to feel better,” like take a walk or talk to someone, “but if you don’t feel ready to do that then and there, you don’t have to.”

Become an active listener. If you want to help a loved one who’s going through something difficult, resist the urge to be overly positive and instead try to just listen. “Being supportive and being positive don’t always have to go together,” Dr. Seide says. “Sometimes being supportive means just listening and letting a person express what is going on with them in a safe and nonjudgmental space.” Listening to someone and showing that you care gives that person space to feel valued and heard, which, Dr. Magavi says, “is pivotal to helping someone” through a hard time.

Use supportive and validating language. Instead of using positively cloaked phrases that are considered dismissive of any negative emotions, try to respond to a loved one with words that encourage them to speak more about whatever they’re feeling so that they have space to feel heard. Dr. Magavi recommends saying and asking things like, “Would you like to speak further about this topic?” “I’m here when you’re ready,” “Is there anything I can do for you right now?” In these ways, she explains, you’re matching the tone of the person who’s struggling rather than shifting it for your own comfort. Dr. Magavi also recommends reiterating parts of what someone is telling you and saying things like “that sounds really hard” or “that sounds really painful” to show that you’re listening. “That encourages the person to speak more because they feel valued, they feel heard,” she explains.

Click here to read the entire article on HelloGiggles.

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