A little humor: A father said to his son, “How did you do on the math test today?” The son said, “I’m afraid I may have failed it.” Father, “Son, don’t be so negative, try to be positive!” Son, “Dad, I’m positive that I failed that math test today.”
Being positive or optimistic is a good attitude to have, but, taken to the extreme, can actually become toxic and unhealthy.
Toxic positivity can be present in relationships, in a family, in a church culture or in an organization where you are only allowed (or only allow yourself) to express positive thoughts or emotions no matter the circumstances.
For example, if someone loses a job, toxic positivity would be where you only allow yourself to look on the bright side, and not allow yourself to feel or process the emotions of the loss. Or in a church culture or family, people may only want to hear you express positive emotions, hopeful things, and may dismiss or minimize any true or negative feelings.
The only acceptable expressed thoughts are things like, “There is a reason for everything.” Or “Look on the bright side.” Or “We are going to stay positive.”
But that is actually not necessarily healthy. There is a difference between toxic positivity and healthy positivity or optimism.
Healthy positivity and healthy optimism is where someone allows themselves to feel what they feel. In the example of a job loss, the healthy thing would be to face the loss, process the emotions of it, and give yourself time to be sad if that’s how you feel. Acknowledge the feelings. After this, when you’re ready, you can choose to begin to think positively, hopeful that you will get another job. Get through your difficult situation well. You can choose to take care of yourself through the process by being real, and by using self-care. Self-care could include such things as making sure to get enough rest, doing some fun things, and being intentional about letting your heart heal.
There are some religious cultures that are so “faith focused” that they do not allow anyone to say anything negative, even if it’s the reality. And while it’s good to hope, false hope can be detrimental to your emotional health over time. Proverbs 13:12 says “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” (NIV)
I remember times in certain church circles where I’ve said something honest, only to be “corrected” by people at church. If that happens enough, you begin to feel shame surrounding your honest feelings, and you definitely would not feel free to express your thoughts and feelings.
For example, let’s say someone is facing a serious medical diagnosis. In certain cultures, if they express any doubt about being healed, they may be made to feel that they don’t “have enough faith”. And while maintaining a positive attitude can be helpful overall, we also must have the freedom to express our true and honest thoughts, without being made to feel ashamed.
We see plenty of examples of this in the Bible. King David wrote many of the Psalms, and there we see him being very real and honest. Sometimes he’s positive and found encouraging his own soul, while other times he’s down, expressing his fears and disappointments. I believe that we see, through his writing, him processing his emotions in a healthy way.
For example, in Psalm 42:6, David writes:
O my God, my soul is in despair within me [the burden more than I can bear];
Therefore I will [fervently] remember You from the land of the Jordan
And again in Psalm 42:11, David writes:
Why are you in despair, O my soul?
Why have you become restless and disquieted within me?
Hope in God and wait expectantly for Him, for I shall yet praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God.
David’s process seems to be (which can work for us also):
- Acknowledge his thoughts and emotions.
- Express them, to himself and to God. Be real.
- Encourage himself to hope and wait expectantly for God.
I think too many people just skip to hope, without allowing themselves the freedom to be real. This can be from things we’ve been taught, or from a culture that we are involved with. But the process that David seems to go through can take time, days, or even weeks or months.
A few years ago, I went through some trauma and major changes and loss in my life. I went through a divorce, and left my position as senior pastor of a church. I was very burned out and not in a good place emotionally. When I left the position, it also felt as if I lost many dreams, hopes and plans for the future. It actually took several years to recover, and I spent a lot of time in quiet, rest, and making an intentional effort to receive healing for my heart.
One song that really ministered to my heart during this healing time was a song by Mercy Me called “Even If”. I literally played it over and over and let God’s healing love wash over me as I listened to it. The gist of the song is that even if God doesn’t answer every prayer, even if not all of our dreams come true, we still can love and hope in God. He is still there with us. We can still dig deep into a place inside ourselves, a place where it’s just us and God.
It’s easy to get so focused on the dreams and goals of life that sometimes we lose touch with our relationship with God.
Here are some of the lyrics:
“I know You’re able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone
They say it only takes a little faith
To move a mountain
Well good thing
A little faith is all I have, right now
But God, when You choose
To leave mountains unmovable
Oh give me the strength to be able to sing
It is well with my soul”
I know that some people, especially from a “word of faith” background, may not agree with the theology here. Some would say, of course God will save you from the fire! Of course God will move the mountain! But in reality, sometimes He doesn’t, or He does it in ways that don’t look like what we expected. When I got real with God and really shared my honest, raw emotions with Him, He brought healing to my heart over time.
Real faith, real hope, is when we can be real and express what we really think, and still dig deep to find the hope in God that we know is there, despite circumstances not always being what we wanted or expected.
I want to encourage you that you have the freedom to think and express your thoughts and it’s ok. God will not be upset or disappointed with you. He will be with you, bringing comfort and healing along the way.
Author: Anna Harris