Positivity: A Candle, Not a Hammer



We've been talking about optimism a lot on the Positivity Playground lately.


We recently completed a 5-Day Coaching Challenge on thinking optimistically, and we're now halfway through our Book Club on Dr. Martin Seligman's essential read on the subject: Learned Optimism.


"Optimism" is one of those words like "positivity" that can make people uncomfortable. I find the dialogue around this to be so meaningful, and we've had many opportunities to explore people's thoughts about these concepts in beautifully sensitive, respectful, and supportive ways.


What Positivity is NOT

For many people, their negative associations with the notions of optimism and positivity come from painful and/or frustrating experiences of forced, false, or toxic positivity. A lot of this is engrained in us during childhood, absorbed from parents who didn't know anything other than the platitudes they were raised with themselves. As we move into adulthood, the prevailing culture of our schools and workplaces often perpetuates a prescriptive, oppressive expectation around "being positive."


To me, these are ways that people and organizations wield "positivity" like a hammer - expecting or encouraging others to respond to everything from minor challenges and setbacks through to grief and trauma in a scripted, cookie-cutter manner, often sounding like this...

  • "Look on the bright side!"

  • "Every cloud has a silver lining."

  • "Keep your chin up!"

  • "Forgive and forget."

  • "It's time to move on."

  • "I'm sure they meant no harm."

  • "Keep the past in the past."

  • "Don't worry about it."

Although we may say these things with the best of intentions, they are dismissive and destructive - both to the relationship and to the person we're saying them to. We often say them to try and reduce our own discomfort with negative emotions or with the complexity of what someone is going through.


How can we do this differently, and better?

Mindless "positivity" can do real damage, but true positivity (the kind that is based on psychological research and leads to a thriving, flourishing life integrating all the ups and downs) can be learned, and it can be a tremendous help to people who are held captive by negative, automatic patterns of thinking and behaving which they may not be aware of. The wellbeing outcomes of practicing positive psychology are significant.


I personally believe this is some seriously good news worth sharing. That's why I do what I do. But the way in which we offer the lessons learned by positive psychology researchers really matters. That's why I practice coaching now instead of "training," as I did for many years.


In Search of a Metaphor

I've been trying to come up with a metaphor that captures my thoughts about sharing the tools and perspectives of positive psychology. It's definitely not a hammer as I've described above...so then what is it? Right now, I'm seeing it as a candle.


A candle is small and delicate, and it offers a bit of warmth and light to people who are near it. We can't move too quickly when carrying a candle, or it will go out. But the power is tremendous; with our small candle, we can light many more candles if people want to take a bit of the flame.


It Starts with Empathetic Relationships

To me, this metaphor underscores the importance of relationships in sharing positivity to support wellbeing, especially when we're talking about negative feelings and experiences. It begins with empathetic validation of another person's experience, which can sound like this...

  • "Can I sit with you for a while?"

  • "Would you like to go for a walk and talk?"

  • "That sounds really hard."

  • "I'm sorry you're having to deal with this."

  • "I admire your strength and courage."

  • "No wonder you're upset."

  • "I can see why you would feel that way."

  • [Supportive silence, allowing space for thinking/feeling]

These are the ways we build relationships that are based on trust. We're not trying to fix each other; we're simply demonstrating a commitment to come alongside someone and listen respectfully, with unconditional positive regard for them and acceptance of their experience.


Shining Some Light

In our conversations on the Positivity Playground, we've been discussing how to bring the tools and perspectives of positive psychology into peer-to-peer conversations where we feel they may be useful. I see this as shining a bit of that candlelight into a conversation - but there are a few key things to keep in mind when we do this...

  • We're not in a position to solve other people's problems, by virtue of the fact that we are not them. A very powerful way we can offer support is to help people tap into their own resources. Asking a question like, "What usually helps you when you feel this way?" is a subtle yet empowering invitation to self-solutioning, drawing upon existing strengths and resources.

  • If we sense a person feels really stuck but wants to keep talking, this may be an appropriate moment to offer some candlelight - but still tapping into their own wisdom and self-knowledge by asking a very open-ended question like, "Is there something I can do to help you with this?" (Please note that I'm talking about peer-to-peer conversations here, not a formal coaching conversation, where this question would not be appropriate.)

  • If - and only if - the person asks us for ideas or our perspective, it's best to offer these gently and hypothetically (asking questions rather than making statements). It's also important to hold our views and suggestions very lightly, willing to let them go if we see they're not serving the situation.

  • We have to earn the opportunity to share our ideas with people, for them to want to sit near our small candle and absorb, reflect, or take some of its flame. This happens through building genuine, reliable, mutually respectful relationships - which doesn't happen overnight. And it certainly doesn't happen in a single conversation.

What Do You Think?

This post is very much me thinking out loud and wanting to capture some things I've been mulling over. I would love to hear your thoughts on this as well.


Feel free to send me a chat message anytime (at the bottom of the screen) - or we can connect on LinkedIn.

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