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The Difference Between Hopeful Optimism and Toxic Positivity

Oversimplified solutions and motivational pressure can exacerbate trauma.

 Shutterstock/Leonov O.
Simply "making lemonade" with poisonous lemons can further distress.
Source: Shutterstock/Leonov O.

It’s one of those COVID catastrophe days, where your issues are having issues.

Everyone’s buzzing about the “return to normal,” but you’re pretty sure “normal” was never a thing. While there’s hope in the air, there’s still so much to contend with.

A close friend tells you to relax, to be more Zen, take a deep breath. You try, but you feel more like the Dalai Trauma.

You turn to Facebook, the infinite source of evidence-based wisdom and uplifting material. You’re greeted with a trite, cliché “when life gives you lemons make lemonade” meme. Your stomach churns.

Doesn’t the person who shared this know that the COVID lemons have not only been bitterly sour, but poisonous?

Sugar is hard to come by these days. And not everyone has clean water to mix in. The lemons of human suffering, violence, and power over did not magically appear in 2020, especially for BIPOC and marginalized persons and communities.

COVID has been the ultimate lemon overload. With the enormity we’ve had to bear, it’s no fault to welcome improvements with a spirit of optimism and gratitude. Such envisioning can serve as protective factors towards well-being.

Hopeful optimism involves a process of anticipating positive circumstances and improved outcomes. Science shows that imagining the future in such ways can help promote human flourishing, sustaining us through challenges and the opportunities to tackle our mountain of rotten lemons.

Forced optimism during sustained periods of trauma and grief can be counterproductive, and even harmful. Toxic positivity encourages us to deny dark emotions, even though they are proportionate to the times.

Oversimplified formulas forcing the hand of “normal” can stunt the healing and recovery processes. They can also reinforce mindsets of denial surrounding our troubled history of white supremacy and the caste system we’ve grappled with long before the pandemic.

Here are some ways to nurture hopeful optimism and resist toxic positivity to promote personal and collective healing:

1. Resist “lemonade propaganda.” The hardcore lemons of COVID are far from the Meyers kind that shows up in Harry and David gift baskets. It will take time to heal and detoxify from the giant influx of lemon juice concentrate we’ve been served. Oversimplified responses can exacerbate trauma. Not everyone’s lemons are the same; water and sugar are not always plentiful.

2. Name your pain. We can’t just skip over the sour. Primitive instincts can instigate denial or distraction approaches. Science shows that acknowledging and naming pain, both individually and collectively, can aid healing processes. Modern brain science reveals that facing and naming complex, challenging emotions can help us cope more effectively. When pain is validated, it can help create space for better understanding ourselves and one another.

3. Avoid continual marination in pain. None of us are meant to be ceviche. Lemon soaking 24-7 without respite can erode our well-being. Nurture your mind, body, and soul with proper sleep, nourishment, creative activities, and community. While COVID delivers many roadblocks, give yourself permission to breathe and cultivate some respite and joy to fuel your spirit of hopeful optimism, without pressuring yourself to be Zen or hyper-motivated.

4. Share your resources. Don’t hoard sugar and water supplies if you have them. Keep an eye out for ways you can contribute positively and help support collective efficacy. In addition to the moral imperative to do so, research shows that when we demonstrate kindness and empathy and hold ourselves accountable to work towards reparations and social justice, it builds the kinds of bonds that help us move towards a future we can truly be optimistic about.

References

Lee, K (2018). Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking. Learn what it takes to be more agile, mindful and connected in today's world. Deerfield Beach: HCI Books.

David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. New York: Avery

Feldman Barrett, L. (2006). Solving the Emotion Paradox: Categorization and the Experience of Emotion. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 10 (1), 20–46.

Russo, A. (2019). Feminist Accountability: Disrupting Violence and Transforming Power. New York: New York University Press.

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