Taking the Toxic Out of Positivity

By Stephanie Filio, M.Ed., author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis

Taking the Toxic Out of PositivityYou get to work with five minutes to spare after you forgot to warm up your car. You check your pockets and realize you left your mask at home. Getting a new mask puts you three minutes behind, which means you don’t have time to get your second coffee. This is probably fine, because your first cup, you find out, is dribbled down your shirt. You get to your office (or classroom), welcome in the student who has been waiting for tutoring, and see the light on your phone alerting you of a message. The message reminds you that you forgot about a 504 meeting. The bell rings.

Days like this feel as if they never end. You start behind, everything feels all discombobulated, you struggle to find your stride, and you go home feeling unsuccessful. But don’t worry! You aim to have just a moment of pointless scrolling to unwind before starting dinner. You look for solace on social media . . .

“Failure is not an option!”

“Keep smiling and imagine good vibes!”

“When you forget the bright side, you’ve forgotten everything!”

And now, what was supposed to help you feel better has made it worse. You did try as hard as you could, but despite your best efforts, you could not overcome all the obstacles of the day. And now social media tells you that failed at failing. Humph!

Positively Practical

Often, terms like grit and toughness insinuate that good things happen to people who work hard enough and bad things are controllable and avoidable. But sometimes, bad stuff just happens or things just don’t go our way. When students experience hardship or setbacks, the last thing you want is for them to feel as if they are at fault, but “positivity” messages around grit and toughness do just that.

  • Grit as it is used in schools may be harmful to students who are doing the best they can with what they have.
  • Toughness implies that all students are experiencing the same level of adversity and that feeling sad about personal hardships means they are “doing it wrong.”

These messages represent a toxic positivity rather than a practical one. And bringing them into our hallways, even with the best intentions, could be hindering our efforts to help students endure and bounce back when things don’t go their way and set goals for the future. These messages are problematic because they adopt an attitude that disregards the paradoxical nature of life. Toxic positivity minimizes negative feelings, implying that a person should simply ignore them. It can not only cause a person to feel incompetent, but can also reinforce negative coping mechanisms.

Real, practical positivity, on the other hand, acknowledges and honors all the emotions a person might feel. So, instead of messages like those in the social media posts above, try this: Nothing is forever; the good times and bad times are waves coming in and out. This is positive, but also practical.

The Real Feels

How, then, do we help our students and ourselves deflect toxic, denial-based positivity and embrace other, healthier mindsets? We can teach them to strive to develop contentment, joy, and self-compassion.

Joy /joi/ noun: a feeling of great pleasure and happiness. —Oxford Dictionary

Notice that the very definition of joy is not simply a way to act (like positivity) but a feeling. So by encouraging our students (and ourselves) to strive for joy, we teach them to honor their feelings and make personal decisions for how to move through those feelings.

Striving for Positive Feelings

Pretending negative feelings aren’t there only hides them away, likely to become destructive emotion-based behaviors. But validating our authority over our emotions can help us feel more in control. Here are some ideas for helping your students focus on contentment, joy, and self-compassion.

  • Contentment: Students can feel content despite difficulties. Help encourage this by providing a safe and caring environment. As educators, we can be a firm foundation that shows, mirrors, and fosters feelings of gratitude and appreciation.
  • Joy: The yin and yang teach us that where there is sadness, there must also be joy. Making the classroom and school a fun and joyful place allows students to experience these positive feelings, even if they do not exist in other areas of their lives.
  • Self-compassion: Help students treat themselves with care by treating them with compassion. Empathy-building and mindfulness can help transform a student’s inner voice to be as kind to themself as their outer voice is to others.

Positive Planning

Moving forward, we do want our students to be optimistic when they experience setbacks or stress. We want them to feel hopeful, but this year has taken the need to be realistic with our students to a whole new level! The jig is up. Sometimes stuff happens, like societal upheaval and an international pandemic, and no amount of “good vibes” can make it go away.

Though this has been a learning curve for us all, it is also the perfect opportunity to eliminate the toxic positivity and return to a simpler form of positive planning.

Do’s and Don’ts

Here are some great ways to make everything from picking classes for the next school year to looking at career goals realistic and optimistic!

Don’t present making plans as a fool-proof solution to anything bad happening.

DO help students normalize that back-up plans are just as viable as primary goals.

Don’t overwhelm students by jumping ahead to the end goal.

DO help students break down their goals into smaller parts and smaller goals.

Don’t discourage students from expressing their shortcomings or insecurities.

DO allow students the space to explore their negative inner voices, so that you can model a compassionate inner voice.

Don’t isolate students or make lofty goals seem like a secret.

DO encourage students to share their goals with one another and practice encouraging each other.

Side Note

All this advice applies to you too. You are deserving of contentment, joy, and self-compassion, even if—and especially when—the day doesn’t go your way.

Stephanie Filio, author of Responding to Student TraumaStephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.

Responding to Student TraumaStephanie is the author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis.

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