How to handle negativity without being annoyingly positive

We think that having an upbeat attitude is required in any adverse interaction we have. How many times have you said the following phrases to yourself, or to coworkers, friends and family?

  • “Just stay positive.”
  • “Don’t worry, everything will work out.”
  • “It’s all part of a bigger plan.”
  • “Look on the bright side.”
  • “Only good vibes allowed.”

Researchers acknowledge the consequences of negative emotions and the benefits of positive emotions on our physical and mental wellbeing. Studies in positive psychology prove that people who react in a positive manner in the workplace have stronger relationships, greater psychological safety, and enhanced learning, creativity and motivation. Ultimately, employee and organizational performance  improves when positive emotions (i.e., optimism, gratitude) are more prevalent. 

So, where have we gone wrong and why is toxic positivity becoming a significant workplace problem? 

We aren’t accurately defining or living positivity in our workplaces

Positivity was never meant to exclude the experience of negative emotions. Toxic positivity is defined as the denial, suppression or ignoring of negative emotions. It’s happiness at all costs and the belief that our interactions with family, friends, and coworkers must exclude anything that doesn’t feel positive. 

Recently, when I was sitting in the airport, I overheard a conversation. The gentleman on the phone was talking to a coworker and said apologetically, “I’m sorry I have been so absent from the program. I am dealing with a health issue—it’s cancer. I’ve had a poor attitude lately, and I know I need to just get over it, but it’s been hard.”

While this was said with good intent, it discounted the rest of his emotions. When we fail to acknowledge negative feelings, we deny the opportunity for personal growth.

When we are sad, frustrated, or anxious, and someone asks, “What’s wrong?” the very nature of the question implies that our negative emotions are problematic. When organizations fail to provide a safe space for employees to express their full spectrum of emotions, employees become disengaged, and we risk losing them. Healthy workplaces create venues for the expression of fear, anger, or doubt. 

We underestimate the complexity of emotion, as well as our skills navigating it

Why is it so hard to say, “I’m not ok?”  We can all agree that it’s difficult to divulge how we are feeling in an honest way, especially when we feel pressured to confess an unpleasant emotion to our coworkers. Maybe we view this reaction as a sign of weaknesses or vulnerability, or maybe we are in denial about our true feelings. So, we put on a happy face and turn it towards the world, all while churning inside with anger, fear, shame, sadness or disgust. 

Alternatively, we can feel uncomfortable when someone shares something that triggers a difficult emotional response. In our discomfort, we respond with one of the statements mentioned above hoping to ease the situation. Unfortunately, these phrases leave many of us feeling invalidated or shamed into silence.  

When we suppress negative emotions, we fail to give ourselves or others a chance to grapple with them. The more we can improve expressing and receiving emotional responses, the more we can authentically share our positive and negative feelings in a healthy way. Managing emotions comes from building emotional intelligence (EI). It’s a skill that is honed over a lifetime. One study found that the mere act of labeling our feelings (a common EI technique) helps us release them. 

We fail to appreciate the value of negative emotions

Too often, the perspective we take is that some emotions are good, and others are bad. We convince ourselves that that if we can avoid the bad feelings and force the good feelings, everything will just fall into place. Actually, emotions are neutral. We label some of our emotions negative because they are hard for us to process, they feel unpleasant, and they require a great deal of our energy. 

For these reasons, we want to hide them, and often, not deal with them. We deny that getting shut out of an important meeting made us furious, or that taking on a new project for the CEO might scare us. 

Yet, if allowed, they can provide us with critical knowledge. Often, our greatest learnings and opportunities come from a place where we had to sit with and explore negative emotional experiences. Grief, sadness, fear and shame are all examples of feelings that got you to where you are today. 

Embracing the reality of our negative emotions, without getting stuck in them paves the way for a healthier path forward. So, how can we acknowledge toxic positivity in the workplace? With the new year just around the corner, forming positive habits from these tips will have you and your coworkers ready to embrace the positive, negative, and every other emotion that comes your way. 

Cultivate a growth mindset

Cultivating a growth mindset starts with believing that we can change and grow over time to be better. Use this strategy to acknowledge that, in this moment, you are sad, angry, or fearful, but that you will work through it and come out better for it. It is an internal dialogue that says, “I have dealt with hard things before, and I will again.” The difference between this mindset and toxic positivity is that you do not deny the negative, you just embrace a paradigm that allows you to feel the emotion and move through it. 

Ask thoughtful questions

If we want to allow for a better expression of emotion, we need to move beyond basic questions such as, “How are you?”, “Are you ok?” or “What’s wrong?” While these are common phrases, they don’t allow people to express what they are truly feeling. Consider the following alternatives:

  • It seems you are (angry), what happened that led you to feel that way?
  • Tell me more about what is going on for you right now?
  • This project will bring up a lot of unknowns. Let’s talk about everyone’s fears if we move forward.
  • How would you describe what you are feeling right now?

Hold space for the real emotion that needs to be recognized

The real emotion (fear, anger, sadness, contempt) is often the very one we want to avoid. They often feel painful, and we lack the skills to proactively manage them. Holding space allows us to process and express our feelings when we are ready. When we leave room to recognize our feelings, we might ask a question, share a compassionate perspective or just be in silence. Getting more comfortable with negative emotions ensures that you are not countering every difficult feeling with a positive response. 

Don’t jump to conclusions

One of our previous consultants used to remind us: “You can’t tell your story while you are in it.”  We often try and understand our situation too soon. Sometimes, we just need to be in the moment. Be okay with feeling sad. Be aware of our fears or recognize our anger. The lessons unfold over time. 

Look for clues

“Should” is a trigger word for me. When we say that we “should” or “shouldn’t” be feeling something, it is a clue that we are not ready to move forward from our emotional state. Stay with what is. Avoid shaming someone (or yourself) for feeling a certain way or brushing things off when they really are a big deal to you

While “don’t worry and be happy” is great advice, don’t allow it to come at the expense of your true feelings. Emotions are your greatest teacher. 

Laurie Cure is the founder and CEO of Innovative Connections.