Insult and Injury: Toxic Positivity in Schools
Many years ago I sat in a terrible staff meeting. Positions in our school were being removed, a colleague’s illness had taken a turn for the worse, and one of our dear students had lost her father. Everyone was feeling heartbroken and frustrated.
“We just need to put a happy face on it!” the administrator chirped and moved on to bus duty schedule announcements. There was a clear expectation that we weren’t supposed to discuss what was going on and we all needed to “leave the negative at the door for the children.” That was not good advice or developmentally appropriate.
Toxic positivity, that message to “bring good vibes only” has serious negative consequences, both psychologically and on the outcomes in the workplace and classrooms:
- Denying or minimizing experiences and feelings leads to mistrust and shame, see Brene Brown’s “Listening to Shame” TED Talk and the lethal effects of shame that are very applicable to a classroom
- Suppressing emotions has negative consequences for mental health
- Not acknowledging negative emotions prevents you and others from learning from these painful feelings and experiences
- It undermines the UDL framework we need to ensure learners (and expert learners) voices are heard
The message to “focus on the positive” and “it could be worse” was silencing our ability to grieve, process, and be empathetic towards each other.
So what do we do instead? Some points that have carried me through tough feelings and interactions:
- It’s okay to not feel okay. These “bad feelings” are not inherently “bad,” they are morally neutral and part of the human experience. Feeling this way doesn’t make you a bad educator, family member, or leader.
- Listen to other’s emotions and experiences. It’s okay for others to feel sad, angry, or upset when you are not. Unless asked for, it’s probably not a time to offer unsolicited advice and don’t attempt to police their tone.
- Set your boundaries and respect the boundaries of others. “I want to vent. Are you in a place to hear me right now?” with your trusted go-to person might be a good way to start. Recognize when others are producing toxic positivity and set boundaries with them.
- Seek support. All these hard and big feelings (whether you are feeling them or others are feeling them) can be difficult to manage. Mental health services like Be Well Indiana or your employer’s Employee Assistance Program often have free or reduced-fee services. They can support you and help you find ways to listen and empathize more effectively, find motivation, set boundaries, and return to a happier and healthier state.
As we start a new year, which may be the hardest year some of us have ever lived: all vibes are welcome. PATINS’s support and kindness are here when you need it when providing healthy, sustainable, and respectful access and engagement for all students.
PATINS Blog: Feeling the Burnout
Indiana Resource: Be Well Indiana for mental health resources, crisis hotlines (both for voice and via text), and assistance
"vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change." Brene Brown. Thanks Jessica for this timely blog. Sitting with my rage today.
Kindness is the first step to healing and moving forward with 2021. Thank you, Jessica, for this blog as a friendly reminder. So noted.