Acknowledging the positives is a way to remember all that is good about life. However, as with everything, there can be too much of a good thing. This includes what is called toxic positivity, which is the relentless focus to only concentrate on the good, at the cost of ignoring all of the bad.
“The emotions that you are feeling, that we feel, when we deny them, double down. They burrow. They fester. They metastasise. Not only do our feelings double down and grow, they invite shame over for the party,” said Brené Brown, author of books such as The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness, and Dare to Lead, in a recent podcast.
Practicing empathy leads to more empathy
Small and large, we all have our griefs. Whether it’s a kid missing a birthday party or a person risking exposure every day to go to work, there is a lot of fear and anxiety and hurt in the world right now, and for good reason.
We are living through a pandemic. We don’t know if we will be safe, if our loved ones will be safe. For many of us, we are also worried about whether we will still have a job, or how to handle getting laid off, or how to pay our bills this month.
In addition to all the large worries, there are also the small griefs. We are all grieving the cancelled parties, graduation ceremonies and weddings. We are all worrying about our friends and family members, wondering if they will stay safe and healthy. We are all collectively dealing with a world that is no longer safe.
When we push aside all of this in an effort to only focus on the good, we deny these fears. We minimise them, and in so doing, we rob ourselves and others of the opportunity to process what is happening. We also miss out on an opportunity to empathise with others, to share in their griefs and worries.
As Brown pointed out in her podcast, when we try and rank our suffering, to assign greater or lesser value to the kid who has missed a birthday party or the adult that has to risk exposure every day by going to work, we do this on the assumption that empathy is finite.
“When we practice empathy with ourselves and others, we create more empathy,” Brown says.
A cancelled birthday party might seem small to us, but to a kid, that might mean everything. An adult risking exposure every day by going to work may still have a job, but that’s cold comfort if they are worrying about their own health, or the health of their loved ones back at home.
We are all grieving in our own way. As grief expert David Kessler said in a recent interview,
“Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. […] If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us.”
Acknowledging issues gives us an opportunity to fix them
Only acknowledging the positives, while ignoring everything else, also brings the risk of nothing ever changing. After all, how can we even begin to fix a problem, if we won’t even acknowledge its existence?
These past few months, we’ve seen an enormous amount of goodness in people. From the researchers who are developing vaccines and testing out treatments, to the healthcare workers who are risking their own health and working long hours to care for their patients, we have seen an enormous amount of ingenuity and humanity on display these past few months.
In addition to this good, we’ve also seen a lot of issues which have amplified the pandemic. If you live in the U.S., you've seen a failure in widespread testing, which is critical for containing the spread, and will be essential for when the country opens up again. There's already U.S. states that are opening up without the necessary infrastructure for limiting the spread, which is estimated to lead to more cases and more deaths.
On top of all that, the U.S. is an anomaly in that they don’t have mandatory paid sick leave, and have a large number of uninsured or underinsured people, which means there are a lot of people who can’t afford to miss a day of work or go to the doctor.
On top of all this, the U.S. now has an economic crash, with 30 million unemployment claims in the past six weeks. There are a lot of people in the U.S. who, in addition to worrying about a deadly disease, are worried about how they will pay rent and feed their family. This pandemic has exposed a lot of structural issues within U.S. society.
It’s ok to acknowledge what is wrong about this situation. After all, if we don’t acknowledge the issues, what hope do we have of fixing them?