215-260-4881 gail@gailcummings.com

Toxic Positivity

“My comfort is more important than your reality…”

Getting into a good public high school in NYC, where I grew up, was a high-stakes, competitive process. My older brother was already attending the Bronx High School of Science, the crown jewel of the magnet schools, and now it was my turn to take the exam, pass it, and follow in his footsteps.

The night before the exam, my anxiety went through the roof and I started panicking. Thinking it was a good idea to talk to my father – my biggest cheerleader – I expressed that I was nervous and wanted to talk about options if I didn’t pass the exam. His response: “Failure is not an option.”

At that very instant I felt the pain from the pit forming in my stomach, and I think it remained until weeks later when I received the news that I had scored high enough on the test and was admitted. I know my father thought he was doing me a favor, being positive by sending the message that I had to succeed. But what really happened is his positivity became toxic – triggering my shame for being anxious – and he unintentionally invalidated my emotions which exacerbated the anxiety.

What my Dad said may have sounded harmless. However, when you share something emotionally difficult and the other person insists “that you turn it into a positive, what they are really saying is: My comfort is more important than your reality,” according to Susan David, Ph.D., a Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of Emotional Agility.

What actually would have been helpful?

Dad: “It’s normal to be anxious before an important exam. You’ve done hard things before, and you can do this too.”
Gail: “I thought I was the only one to feel anxious and that something was wrong with me.”
Dad: “There is nothing wrong with you. You being anxious tells me this is really important to you, and that makes sense.”

Sharing our emotional truths ought to be easier. If you are anxious, discouraged, feeling that things are really hard and you need to hear that it’s okay not to feel okay, please call me at 215-260-4881 and I would be happy to help. 

Stay healthy, Stay safe, Stay sane,


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215-260-4881 - gail@gailcummings.com