Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Toxic Positivity

It’s the latest from the therapy world. Given that our psycho therapists have told us to have a positive outlook, to see the brighter side, to find a silver lining in every storm, you can feel confident that some people have taken it a bit too far.

Finding something good about your pain is not necessarily the best way to deal with it. Beside, some people find relentless positivity to be insulting and offensive. So much so that serious professionals have identified yet another problem-- toxic positivity.

So explains Elizabeth Bernstein in her Wall Street Journal column.

Sometimes the worst thing you can say to a person who’s feeling bad is: “Cheer up!”

Chip Hooley learned this the hard way. At the beginning of the pandemic, his daughter, Hilary, called him in a panic. She and her husband had recently purchased an apartment in Brooklyn. Now, she was worried that real-estate prices in New York were falling and her friends were leaving the city.

Mr. Hooley, 60, a financial-firm executive from Cazenovia, N.Y., interrupted her. “Don’t worry, this will all work out for the best,” he said, launching into a pep talk. “I gave her all these positive thoughts,” he said. “I felt like Batman saving the world.”

Then his wife, who was sitting next to him, piped up. “That was the most annoying conversation I’ve ever heard,” she said. “Your daughter wanted to talk to her dad, and you didn’t even listen.”

Of course, we do not really know what it means to listen, especially when most psycho professionals think that listening has something to do with spraying the room with empathy.

Consider this. Hooley was a financial services professional. He might have known that the best time to buy stocks and real estate is when no one wants them. Did his daughter want her father to commiserate with her? Probably not. Most children do not expect commiseration from their fathers, especially when he has some expertise in an area. 

In truth, no one seems to have recommended this course of action. And besides, the nature of markets is such that while it is likely that it is best to buy when everyone wants to sell, the reality is that there are no guarantees. It might be more likely that things will be better over time, but it is not a sure thing.

In truth, and in retrospect, the best time to buy Brooklyn real estate was the time that Cooley’s daughter and son-in-law bought their apartment. 

Unfortunately, the credentialed professionals that Bernstein consults with all seem to believe that it’s all a matter of regulating your emotional barometer by processing your emotions.

Yet, difficult emotions are a part of life. To suppress them is to deny reality. Research shows that trying to stifle those emotions makes you feel worse because you never coped with them—plus, they will pop back up eventually. The brainpower it takes to push the emotion away keeps you focused on it.

“Think of emotions as a closed circuit,” says Natalie Dattilo, a clinical psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “They have to go somewhere, so they come back up, like Whac-A-Mole.”

Of course, this can only mean that some therapists are markedly uncomfortable when dealing with reality. The notion that emotions are either repressed or expressed is a bugaboo of the therapy world, one that derives, indirectly, from Freud. 

The question is not processing emotions but rather, in seeing them as an indication pointing to something that needs to be dealt with in real life. The way to deal with an emotion is to look outside and to consider what one might do. Looking to the past, and imagining that the emotion is directing you back into the past, is the wrong approach-- it moves you out of your life and into your mind. 

Consider this, from Bernstein:

Telling someone who is in emotional pain to buck up is invalidating and dismissive. Not only are you diminishing their feelings, you’re telling them that these feelings are part of their problem.

“It’s a form of gaslighting,” says Susan David, a psychologist and consultant at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts and the author of “Emotional Agility.” “You basically are saying to someone that my comfort in this situation is more important than your reality.”

At times there is nothing to do but to buck up. But that does not mean that one cannot discuss the reality of the current situation, not to dismiss the problem but to analyze the problem.

True enough, sometimes the thrust toward positivity feels insensitive and inappropriate. Telling someone that there’s a silver lining in a pet’s death makes very little sense. It is also rude.

In reporting this column I heard about people with cancer who were told to stay positive because that will help them beat their illness; someone who was laid off being told that it was all for the best because he’d hated his job; and grieving siblings who were told “at least your mom died in her sleep.”

A recently widowed woman in Philadelphia, whose refrigerator conked out the night before she was hosting family members for a holiday dinner, recalled how a neighbor told her: “In the scheme of things, this is a very minor problem.” (“It wasn’t a minor problem for me,” she said.)

A mother in New Jersey said her teenage daughter complained that her constant attempts to put a positive spin on the challenges of the pandemic only made her feel more stressed. A musician in Florida said a good friend who was feeling down cut her off after she tried too hard to get her to look on the bright side. “I’ll call you back when I snap out of it,” she’d said.

The key to successful communication begins with saying what is appropriate to the situation, to the person, and based on one’s own expertise. You would expect that a plumber’s advice not to worry about a leak will be taken more seriously than a neighbor’s cavalier dismissal of the problem. 

And then, when psycho professionals drone on about feelings they fail to notice that one should not to ask a suffering friend how he really, really feels, but that one should to engage in a conversation about the nature of the problem, and perhaps even to point toward an action plan. 

In the psycho world, action plans-- the question of what we should do about this-- are often derided. It is one reason why so much therapy is largely ineffective.

There is good and bad in the professional advice:

How can we avoid forced positivity, to better help ourselves or someone else who is down?

Start by recognizing that it is different from hope or optimism. Those emotions are rooted in reality, Dr. David says, while toxic positivity is a denial of it.

Of course, this is untrue. Hope and optimism are states of mind. They point toward possible futures; they are not rooted in reality. It is absurd to say so.

Next, Dr. David counsels compassion. Which is fine in some cases, and not fine in others. But then she continues that sometimes emotions are indications that we need to take action, to resolve issues. Rightly so:

Don’t judge yourself, or others, for feeling difficult emotions. Be compassionate. Tell yourself: “I am feeling sad or lonely in the pandemic and that is normal.”

Ask yourself what you can learn from your feelings. “Emotions are data,” says Dr. David. “They are not good or bad. They are signposts to things we care about.” (Loneliness, for example, might signal that you need more connection.) And take action. Do something to address what you decided is missing.

Remember it’s not your job to solve the other person’s problem, nor do they want you to. “You don’t want to listen to respond and give advice,’’ says Mr. Kessler. “You want to listen to understand.”

Of course, listening and understanding is not the same as analyzing the situation and pointing toward an action plan. Heaven only knows what it means to listen to understand. Does it suggest that a friend should say that he feels your pain? Or that it makes sense that you are feeling the pain-- which you can say without mumbling about your empathy.

Other therapists suggest that people who are in misery do not want advice. They want, as Bernstein suggests, an ear. It recalls Mark Anthony’s speech, after the murder of Caesar, where he suggests that friends, Romans and countrymen should lend him their ears.

Again, here, the issue is more complicated. If you are in mourning, if you have lost a relative or even a pet, you expect others to commiserate, usually with a formal gesture of respect.

Under the circumstances, trying to solve the problem will appear to be inappropriate and insensitive.

But, despite the absurdities promoted by today’s grief counselors, moving from cities, even losing your job, even buying a brownstone in Brooklyn-- these life events have nothing to do with the death of a loved one. 

The same applies to a situation where you have no expertise or where the person knows full well what to do to deal with the problem.

As always, one size never fits all. 


markedup2 said...

Good distinctions.

I think I may be somewhat "on the spectrum". I often don't get it, so I usually ask what the point of telling me this is. Do you want me to just be a friendly listener or do you want help solving the problem?

Of course, that's a "push poll" question.

Sam L. said...

This is why I don't talk much. And why I'm posting from my hidden underground bunker.

hayek said...

There was a great line in the Yellowstone series where the main character confronting his son who was contemplating suicide reminded him of his grandfather's saying "you can't fix a broken wheel but you can use the parts to build a new one".

FunkyPhD said...

An oldie, but still a classic: