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It’s okay to not be okay

Do you ever have those moments where you hear a statement or a line from a song that keeps playing in your head like a broken record?  Well, it happened to me this week.  I was having a chat with one of the people in my life to whom I feel comfortable sharing about the broken parts of me.  At one point, she very matter-of-factly said ‘we just need to be okay with not being okay.’  We talked about many things during our conversation and did not necessarily dissect or perseverate on this statement, but yet it has bounced around my head since that moment and has become almost a mantra.  At first I thought maybe it was because I recently had a conversation with my cousin where she said something similar and I was simply making a connection, but I began to suspect that it is more than that; perhaps something deeper and more personal.

Just for fun, I googled ‘It’s okay to not be okay’.   Interestingly, I found out that there is a Korean drama on Netflix by that name, but I also came across a number of articles about toxic positivity. I had actually heard this term in the height of the pandemic as something that was causing addition anxiety and stress for educators.  At the time I took offense to the term and felt like it was an affront to me and my personality.  I mean, here I was trying to be a positive and encouraging force to support the teachers and leaders I work with on a regular basis.  I could see that they were struggling, and I desperately tried to look for positive angles and often served as a cheerleader by pointing out the incredible work they were doing with great success.  And NOW someone wants to say that I am TOXIC?!  So, like the mature and well-educated person that I am, I crossed my arms, stomped my feet, and refused to acknowledge the term or explore it further.  Instead, I just pouted a little and then ignored it.

Toxic Positivity

As I read some of the articles this weekend, I began to develop a better understanding of this term I had deemed ‘that phrase that shall not be spoken.’  Toxic positivity is a term often used by Dr. Jaime Zuckerman.   She describes it as ‘the assumption, either by oneself or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset.’  With toxic positivity, negative emotions are seen as a bad thing and there is an expectation that everyone should exude positivity and happiness.  In this case, authentic human emotions are invalidated and minimalized.  Dr. Zuckerman explains that ‘Efforts to avoid, ignore or suppress emotions that are appropriate to context can isolate someone in their time of need, thereby perpetuating the stigma that mental health issues equate to weak-mindedness.’  If we continually suppress certain feelings, they will likely grow stronger and will continually lurk in the background, possibly affecting sleep, and creating feelings of anxiety.  On the other hand, if we believe that it is okay not to be okay, we can just accept what we are feeling, process the feeling and wait for it to pass.

I now have a bit more clarity about this phrase that can now be spoken.  In fact, I realize that I am guilty of toxic positivity, but mostly with myself.  I realize that I have not believed that it is okay for me to not be okay.  I thought this is what people expected from me.  I have always been the Pollyanna- the one who picked everyone else up and believed that all would be good.  I had no reason to be sad, afraid, or anxious because I have a good family, a good job, and great friends.  I help people and I can’t help them if I am not okay.  I have never wanted to be a burden to others, and I would surely be a burden if I were ever not okay.  Given that many of our Challenging Learning followers are teachers, leaders, and parents, I am guessing that many of you can relate to all or some of these thoughts.

As we are heading back to school in the fall (or after the winter holiday for our southern hemisphere friends), I can safely say that there will be lots of moments when teachers, leaders, students, and parents are not okay.  This would be true in any given year, but is especially true considering what we have all endured over the last 18 months.  What can we do to ensure that toxic positivity does not lead us to dismiss, ignore, or invalidate the authentic emotions that help us to be regulated and mentally healthy?   I don’t profess to be an expert.  I mean, let’s be real- I only allowed that phrase to be a part of my vocabulary within the last 24 hours.  However, here are a couple of insights that I have picked up in my reading:

Think about how you respond to friends and colleagues who are sharing their emotions

Dr. Zuckerman suggests that when someone is sharing their worries, concerns, or fears, avoid phrases like:

  • Positive vibes only
  • It could be worse
  • Just smile- stop worrying
  • What is there to cry about? It’ll be fine
  • You have so much going for you; how can you be upset?
  • Get over it

and instead use phrases like:

  • It is okay to not feel okay right now
  • You should feel whatever emotions you want to feel
  • Take your time. I am with you and I am listening
  • You are allowed to feel this way. Your feelings are valid

** Samara Quintero, LMFT, CHT and Jamie Long, PsyD provide a table of Toxic and Non-Toxic statements here.

Build a culture that is psychologically safe
I truly believe that it is because of the support of my teammates at Challenging Learning, that I was able to develop a better understanding of this phrase at this moment in time.  We regularly engage in dialogue that is authentic, exploratory, non-judgmental, and filled with LOTS of questions (and not always lots of answers- you know- the Learning Pit, P4C- all of that).  We recognize that we are all a work in progress and that sometimes we will be discouraged, afraid or sad, and other times we will be excited, happy, or content, and all of those emotions are okay.  I have definitely learned that the culture of your team, your school, your home, your organization is vitally important and will influence your capacity to reduce toxic positivity and encourage emotional acceptance.

Be gentle with yourself first and foremost
Educators and parents know how important it is to model what we want our learners and children to do.  Contrary to the old adage ‘do as I say, not as I do’ we need to engage in the desired behaviors ourselves.  For me, this will be the biggest challenge- I know I need to learn to give myself grace, but I am so much better at giving others grace.  Perhaps I will enlist one of my colleagues to help keep me on track with this.

I challenge you to think about how you might be a catalyst in your setting to overcome toxic positivity, perhaps by creating a space where there is balance and an acceptance of both good and bad emotions or where there are plenty of opportunities for people to safely share their concerns or frustrations.  You may start by responding with an affirming nod and simply saying ‘Wow, that sucks.  I’m really sorry that happened to you.’ the next time a colleague is sharing their distress.