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Toxic positivity is not your friend


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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 10/02/22

The relentless need to see the bright side can crowd out valid feelings that ought to be named and dealt with.
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As a student at Oral Roberts University at the turn of the millennium, I enrolled in a class called “Signs and Wonders.” Once a week, the theology students gathered in an auditorium with a low drop ceiling where we briefly sat in musty chairs covered in 1970s-era yellow fabric.

Soon enough we were told to stand up, make small groups, and prophesy over our fellow classmates. We were encouraged to prophesy good things over each other. Keep it positive. Speak health and wealth into existence.

Trying to make sense of this experience is what led me into a deep crisis of faith that lasted for several years.

Do we just need more faith?

That example is extreme, but there are numerous instances in which religion is wrapped in a veneer of constant positivity. The idea is really quite simple: spiritual people who have a strong faith will be blessed. This means that when we experience negative developments in our lives — whether that be relationship troubles, money problems, or illness — the best response is to put on a big smile, have more faith, and power through. To give voice to any of negative things going on in our lives is an admission of a flawed spirituality.

Some of the most successful, most visible spiritual movements around are deeply enthralled by a self-help culture that emphasizes the good and denies the bad.

Many people caught in the grip of that type of theology end up in despair because they become convinced they have a defective faith. Their personal lives don’t match up to the image that’s being projected in the homilies they hear and books they read in which holy people don’t ever have negative experiences.

My own faith crisis was caused by feeling like I was on the outside looking in. Everyone else – perhaps in retrospect they were all faking – happily focused on health and wealth. They were having the time of their lives. Positive to a fault, their faith admitted no room for suffering or doubt. I stood there in that prophecy class surrounded by peers and yet totally alone, a black sheep full of doubt and questions, trying to figure out how to quietly get to the door.

Can we be too positive?

My college experience has had me thinking for decades now about how and why positivity can become toxic. Is it possible to be too positive? Does the relentless need to see the bright side crowd out valid feelings that ought to be named and dealt with?

No one, after sharing about how terrible their day has been, wants to hear just snap out of it and be happy. No one wants the complexities of their situation boiled down to a simple fix. Life is harder than that, and more confusing.

I fully admit there is value in keeping a positive outlook. It’s always better to adapt, adjust, and accept rather than fall into despairing paralysis. It is, of course, very possible to be toxically negative. The point is, though, there are times when we need a shoulder to cry on, and it’s harmful to feel like you’re imposing if you tell someone how you really feel. That’s why we often feel compelled to put a smile on and claim that life is wonderful. The smile is a convenience for others so we don’t burden them. But it’s fake. There’s a time and place for serious conversations, but too many fake smiles and the real you eventually disappears.

I wonder if the fear of being real, instead of keeping relationships happy and peaceful, actually increases the space between us. I can’t tell you how many times parishioners turn to me for advice and, after telling me how angry they are at God, immediately backtrack and vigorously apologize. They think they’ve sinned by expressing negative emotions. My response is always the same – God is strong enough to handle your anger. In fact, he wants to know all about it. He wants you to tell him all about the whole unvarnished, negative mess.

Being real is necessary for a true relationship with God

The Psalms, if you think about it, are basically one long diatribe about how, in between being super happy and thankful, the psalmist is also kind of angry and sad. A relationship with God isn’t meant to be walking on eggshells. His willingness to stay with us as we unburden ourselves is precisely what assures that he remains close. Even if, in his infinite mystery, he doesn’t fix it, he provides something far better – his love.

When we shame others for expressing negative emotions, we deny them the opportunity to be loved. We’re validating the idea that they need to work it out on their own, get it together, and then come back when they’re worthy of friendship. This attitude isn’t true friendship any more than a toxically positive spirituality can form a true relationship with God.

I’m not endorsing constant complaining. Rather, I’m saying is that we need to express negative feelings in appropriate ways so we can heal and move on. If we drift into denial, there’s no opportunity to heal.

Perhaps you’ve experienced feeling so much stress and anxiety you’re about to explode, and you’re hanging on and hanging on until, finally, you see your friend for coffee and it all comes tumbling out. Your friend listens, nods, and hands you a cookie. The sun comes out. Technically, the problem still exists and nothing has changed. And yet, everything has changed. You’ve made a genuine connection. Someone else is helping carry your burden. You aren’t alone anymore.

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