Several years ago, when Facebook was still new-ish to me, I was trying to figure out how to bring some goodness and light into my newfound online world. I decided that every morning, before I posted about anything else, I would always post something I thought was positive and encouraging for anyone who happened to have me in their news feed. Since I was a Christian, many of my posts would be something out of my Bible reading that morning, or some other type of spiritual (ahem, Christian) quote that I thought would not only make people feel good, but also might do a little subtle evangelizing all at the same time. Let me give you some examples of my morning posts:
Proverbs 3:6 - “In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight”
“Happiness is an attitude. We either make ourselves miserable, or happy and strong. The amount of work is the same.” —Francesca Reigler
Phillippians 4:13 - “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”
“Virtually nothing is impossible in this world if you just put your mind to it and maintain a positive attitude.” - Lou Holtz
Now, what is wrong with any of that?? Maybe you are asking that question right now too. What is wrong with finding encouragement in Bible verses or using those quotes to remind ourselves that much of our life and our choices starts with our mind and our attitudes. I’m an Enneagram 9 who deeply hates conflict so I figured my little positive posts each day could never be controversial or cause a negative reaction in someone. However, I was wayyyyy off.
It didn’t take long for me to learn 3 important things:
My subtle evangelizing wasn’t subtle at all and many of my non-Christian friends didn’t really appreciate having out of context scripture being shoved in their faces each morning while they were just having their coffee and scrolling through their news feed.
There is something called “Toxic Positivity” and I was coming dangerously close to spreading it around.
There is almost nothing that you can post on the internet that won’t be controversial to someone out there.
I didn’t learn all these things at once, but they all became clear a little at a time. I remember one day in particular, after I had posted my carefully chosen positive quote of the day, I saw a jarring comment come in, actually written by someone I knew well. The comment simply said, “Stop it. Please stop it.” I remember thinking, “What in the world?? What could they possibly mean?? Surely this comment was accidentally left here and they meant it to go on someone else’s post!”
I can’t remember exactly how I responded, but it was something like, “Hey, are you alright?” to which I assumed they would come back with, “Oh yeah! So sorry — that was meant for someone else!” - but ohhhh nooooo… they came back with a long rant to let me know that they were NOT “alright” because my toxic positivity was making them crazy.
uh. ok. now what?
I then noticed a notification that there was a direct message in my inbox from them so I anxiously checked that, still half expecting there to be some joke I was missing or some apology for a misunderstanding, but nope. Their rant continued in this private message space, telling me I needed to learn about toxic positivity and that when I continue to post messages that seem to say that all we need to do to have a better life is to “choose joy”, “choose happiness”, “choose to be positive” or even “choose Jesus”, it is demeaning to people who genuinely struggle with clinical depression or mental illness. It’s not that simple for them. They can’t just wake up and “choose” to feel better because it’s much more complicated than that.
My feelings were hurt, but I knew immediately that they had a point. A point I had completely overlooked. Mainly because clinical depression and/or mental illness wasn’t anything that was discussed in my circles growing up, although my own mother struggled with it for much of her adult life. She was ostracized and shamed for it too, bless her heart. It was right under my own roof, and yet, I didn’t get it. At least I didn’t back then.
When I was growing up in southwest Arkansas, if anyone was having problems with mental health of any kind, the only “treatment” I ever saw prescribed was “more Jesus”. If people were having problems with their marriages, it was always a “faith issue” with one of the parties being accused of not going to church enough or not reading their bible faithfully. If a child was wayward, then clearly the parents haven’t been teaching the child about Jesus and need to get the family in pastoral counseling. (Always pastoral, never outside the church). And if someone was sick, they were prayed over and if they weren’t healed — well, then someone didn’t have enough faith or wasn’t praying hard enough. This type of well-meaning, albeit bad advice, only added shame to whatever they were dealing with already. The shame of not having enough faith to fix your problems. What. A. Mess.
As I have grown up and experienced my own set of struggles in life, I have realized that much of what I was taught was deeply lacking in those areas. Prayer doesn’t fix everything. “More Jesus” doesn’t fix everything. Reading the Bible or going to church doesn’t fix everything. And many, many excellent preachers are completely ill-equipped to be therapists. Just like we need medical doctors to treat our physical ailments, sometimes we need professional counselors and therapists to help us with mental/emotional ailments. And that is nothing to be ashamed about. Sometimes we need more than just a positive cliché to help get us through the day - especially if we are dealing with clinical depression.
I actually realized that on a very personal level in my recent years. I’ve had bouts of deep depression that no amount of positive thinking could pull me out of. No amount of bible reading or attending church or even praying was helping. Finding a good therapist to help me process past pains and failures was what I needed. I swear, if someone tried to “fix” my sadness with any of the clichés that I had been spreading around like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle”, “Everything happens for a reason”, or one of my favorites, “You’re too blessed to be stressed!” Ugh. I would just want to punch them in the face. THIS is a type of toxic positivity. Not acknowledging the dark emotions that someone needs to process, and instead making them feel like they shouldn’t feel the way they do.
Some definitions of toxic positivity are:
*Toxic positivity means holding a perpetually positive outlook to the point that one denies their own emotions or the emotions of others.
**"Toxic positivity is when somebody avoids all negative thoughts or feelings, pretending everything is going well when it is not.
I spent years avoiding the processing of deep hurts by just forcing on a better attitude temporarily. That helped me get through some tough periods, yes… but I truly believe that our minds, souls and even our bodies will eventually tell you that it’s time for some REAL attention and care. And that’s what happened to me. Thank god I found some capable professionals to guide me through those emotions that were dragging me down and help me acknowledge what I was really feeling. It was life-giving work.
Still… I do believe that attitude is important, even in those dark times. No, a cliché quote isn’t going to make much of a difference, but the attitude I’m talking about is determination. The determination to not stay in that desperate, hopeless place. The determination to fight against all the circumstances surrounding us that are just as determined to make our lives chaotic and unhappy.
And a smile is one way to fight.
I know, I know… positive cliché alert!! But it’s TRUE. Even on my hardest of days, I can force a smile and feel a little better. And when I go out into the world, my smile is a way to let others know that I’m determined to make the best of whatever situation comes my way. There truly is power in a simple smile. For you.. and for the one who gets to see your smile.
I love this Thich Nhat Hanh quote: “Our smile affirms our awareness and determination to live in peace and joy.”
No, the smile isn’t going to fix your problems, but it’s a way to remind yourself and the world around you that you are strong enough to fight. Strong enough to do the work that you need to so you can get better. Strong enough to know you deserve to live in peace and joy. And you are worth fighting for.
Again, this is not merely a choice. I believe if it were that easy, we would all choose it. This goes much deeper than that. Which is why we need to seek out help as we walk difficult roads in this journey of life.
Can God help? ... yes.
Can friends help? … yes.
Can self-care help? … yes.
Can therapy help?… yes.
Can positive clichés help?…. maybe! (I’m not saying there’s never a time for a nice positive “Keep your chin up, girl!”)
But we can’t rely on just one of the above. I believe we need them ALL to be happy, healthy and whole. Not just one. ALL of them together make for the best road to happiness for us.
So when you see me smiling, just know that I’m not smiling because I have it all together. Yes, some days I smile from a real place of happiness. But let me tell you - I fought for that happiness. It hasn’t come without doing the work.
Other days, I’m smiling just to let you know I’m still fighting… for me and for those I love.
I hope to see you smiling too.
Much love to you all…. M
What I’m digging right now:
Book: “The Next Right Thing” by Emily P. Freeman. If you struggle with decision fatigue, as I do, I believe you’ll find some relief in the pages of this book! Also, check out her “The Next Right Thing” podcast.
Podcast: Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday conversation with Father Richard Rohr about his book The Universal Christ. Original airdate was June 3, 2019, but it re-aired January 4, 2023. I’ve heard it before but I totally enjoyed listening again this week.
On the tube: One of my favorite books is “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World” by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams. This week we watched a documentary that was filmed along with the writing of this book. It is called “Mission: Joy - Finding Happiness in Troubled Times”. You MUST watch this! I laughed and cried and sometimes both at the same time! I highly recommend!! (we watched on Netflix, but you can hit the link to the webpage above to watch it on other streaming services as well)
* quote taken from article on : https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/toxic-positivity
**quote taken from article on: https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/health-wellness/2022/11/18/toxic-positivity-what-is-how-its-harmful-and-how-avoid/10671100002/
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Great post, Marcia! I just watched the trailer for the documentary and it looks very interesting. Will watch it later this week.
Marcia-Very beautifully expressed! I am forever indebted the last 30+ years to the principle of Paradox and the grounded reality that it brings. Life is not and cannot be all one way or the other and is definitely full of both sides always, every moment. It’s high time our leaders and elders acknowledge and teach about it!!! BTW, a favorite verse of mine is Proverbs 25:20, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or vinegar poured on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.” Teach on, sister! 💜