Optimism means having a positive outlook on life as a whole, which is really good for our kids and for us. But the reality is that life isn’t always positive. Life doesn’t always go how we’d prefer. Life can be harrowing sometimes. We’ve all experienced painful emotions and experiences. And those emotions need to be welcome. All of us are welcome. The pain, grief, sadness, anger – it all needs to be felt and dealt with – because that is also vital to our health.
The catch with toxic positivity is that it takes positive thinking to the extreme and it applies it to everything. And in doing so, it minimizes and denies those sticky icky painful parts of our humanity that aren’t shiny and glowing and happy. It denies authenticity. It denies reality. It’s dismissive. And it’s harmful to our health and well-being.
And I think it runs more rampant than we might realize, especially in our “good vibes only” culture that celebrates being “strong.” And I’m going to keep this in the context of parenting, but this really applies to all of our relationships: our partners, our friends, our co-workers. Toxic positivity often comes from trying to comfort our kids and help them get some perspective, but oftentimes, it’s misplaced. When we respond to our children’s pain by telling them it’s not that bad, we are dismissing their experience. So, on their little bodies, maybe the bullying or the disappointment feels pretty bad, and when we, the person they trust and look to help them make sense of the world, tell them it’s not that bad, it’s really confusing. Mom says it’s not a big deal, but it sounds like a big deal to me. This doesn’t feel right, but mom says that she should be happy. And now they’re not sure they can trust what they feel. What we are inadvertently doing here as parents are substituting our own experience of our child for our vision.
So what is the best answer? The best response is to acknowledge and be curious. You know my mantra: curiosity about the trial. When our child experiences a triggering situation, let’s validate their feelings by asking questions about the situation and acknowledging how they feel. Doing this will not support or encourage negative feelings. I promise you. Because what you’re doing isn’t endorsing the anger, the hate, or the outburst, you’re connecting. And that’s what your child craves and needs most right now. So first, just validate what they’re feeling.
And then second, curiosity and encouraging them to get curious about their own feelings, helps our kids (and this works on us adults too) – getting curious about our feelings helps us to put our feelings and thoughts into words to understand them better. So maybe in getting curious, he discovers why he’s feeling such big feelings, and you help him process it and co-regulate, and that “hatred” releases and dissipates – instead of being suppressed and either growing stronger or turning into resentment and bitterness. And maybe if it doesn’t immediately dissipate, at least we’re helping our child to more clearly know and understand what they’re actually feeling.
And for those of you who feel a little bit condemned right now because you’re thinking of times when you might have responded like this to your children, first, have a little compassion for yourself. You were probably raised by parents who responded in a very similar way and you are probably executing some of these traits within yourself without really being aware of it. Do you often ignore your problems instead of tackling them head-on? Do you minimize your experience because you have these thoughts that it could be worse? All of that is toxic. It is possible to experience your pain and your feelings, and still have gratitude, they are not mutually exclusive.
Do you find yourself judging or shaming others who don’t have a positive attitude all the time? And I’m not encouraging you to go and surround yourself with a bunch of energy vampires to suck the life out of you. I’m simply wondering if your propensity is to reach for judgment before you reach for compassion or curiosity when someone isn’t “positive”? Do you ever feel bad or guilty about your feelings – particularly if you’re feeling angry, sad, frustrated, or disappointed? How often do you hide or avoid these feelings? How often do you feel like you’re forcing yourself to put on a happy face and “get over it”?
So if any of this feels like it’s landing in any way – first, beautiful awareness – so allow yourself to acknowledge that and sit in it. And then second, this is an opportunity to start running a new pattern. This is the day when you start reminding yourself over and over that all of you are welcome. It’s all welcome. It’s not going to be judged, it just is what it is. Whatever it is is going to be greeted with compassion. And then when you’ve allowed yourself to feel it because it’s welcome now, then you can deal with it. And that’s how you get over it and on with it friends. It’s not white-knuckling it through, it’s feeling it and then dealing with it.
Ok, so that was a long caveat – but let’s jump into the optimism and how we can encourage it in our children.
1. Focus on effort over success
I know I talk about this a lot, and it’s because it’s important. We can’t reduce every single thing we do to its result. We can’t do that for our kids and we can’t do it to ourselves either. We are not a culmination of our awards and achievements. You are more than that. Your beautiful kids are more than that! So if we can get in the habit of focusing on the process over the outcome, we’re going to have more to celebrate. It’s a different perspective. It’s a different expectation. It’s a different definition of “success” and it drives optimism. And if you want to hear more about this, you can go all the way back to Episode 2 of the podcast where I talk more about how we can focus more on the journey over the destination.
2. Get comfortable asking “is it true?”
I talked about this a bit last week when we discussed open-mindedness, but it’s so good I had to bring it back for round 2 here. Reformulate our paradigms. Is true what I’m thinking? Reflecting and having perspective about our situations is one of the greatest antidotes against negativity or pessimism. So when we notice our children, or ourselves, having a negative or pessimistic thought, we can gently stop for a moment and simply ask ourselves: Is this really true? Is it true that “this always happens to you”?
With this, I am not suggesting that we dismiss our children’s complaints about certain things. What I am saying is that we can separate the feeling from what we are making it means, and then grasp whether what we are making it mean is true.
Bryon Katie has a model for challenging our paradigms and helping our children challenge theirs is essentially first asking, is it true? And if our answer, at first sight, is yes, the second question is “how can we absolutely know that it is true? What evidence do we have? How do we support our “knowing”? And then the third question is what happens when we believe in this thought?
And then you can replace that untrue thought with what Katie calls the turnaround. So it can be turned around to the self, the other, or the opposite. So if it’s turned around to the self – I should understand myself. If I don’t even understand myself, how can I expect him too?! When it’s turned on the other, the statement is – I should understand him. And to the opposite, it’s, my husband should not understand me. And then just let yourself sit in each of those turnarounds. Let yourself experience it.
And it doesn’t always have to be this in-depth, and we can start by simply helping our kids process what they’re feeling and then question what they’re making it mean. So I hear you’re frustrated and making embarrassed about not making the soccer team – and you can work through that emotion with them. And then maybe when it feels appropriate and loving, you can bring up – listen, I know you were upset, but I just want to challenge you a bit on your statement that you’re the worst soccer player ever. Let’s explore whether that’s really true.
Because exploring alternatives can bring peace and perspective. Exploring alternatives lets us know where our vision might be skewed. Exploring alternatives where we might not be seeing reality clearly. At its core, its separates fact from philosophy.
3. Be aware of our negativity bias
Awareness is key right? And our negativity bias is an evolutionary bias for protection. Our primitive brains were more likely to keep us safe if they were always on the lookout for anything dangerous or harmful. The reality is that we’re no longer in daily danger of being eaten by wild beasts, but our brain doesn’t necessarily know that! So instead of keeping us on alert for real life-threatening danger, it’s keeping us hypervigilant about a sideways look from our coworker, the ruminating over the comment from our spouse, the worry about the presentation we need to make next week, the anxiety about our bills, whatever. Real things – yes. Life-threatening danger – no. So we have to remind our brain that we’re safe. And we have to come against that pattern of negativity bias and intentionally re-wire our brains to look for the good. And for a large part, this is a mindset thing. What is your focus? What are your kids hearing? What does your internal dialogue sound like? How often is your mental scanner looking for the good instead of the bad? What you appreciate, appreciate. That just means that what you focus on is what you’re going to see.
We all have this part of our brain – RAD. Reticular Activating Device. And it’s a part of your brain that really helps to make you efficient. And what happens is that when you tell it to notice something or focus on something, it does a great job at that! It’s the same reason why you start researching getting a golden doodle and all of a sudden, it feels like every dog you see is a golden doodle. Or you’re interested in getting a Jeep, and it feels like all you see on the road these days are Jeeps – and you’re noticing the different series within the models and the different accessories and colors and whatever. All details that if you were looking into getting a minivan or a sports car – you wouldn’t even pick up on – because it’s your RAD working. And the same is true for the good and the bad. We communicate to that RAD to focus on the negative – it is so good that it’s going to do just that! But the opposite is also true. If we want it to start focusing on the good, we can rewire it to do so. And friends, life is so much richer that way. And it’s so beautiful. You don’t want to miss it.