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Performative Positivity (and Why It Sucks)

(Artist credit: KC Green)

You know the drill. You're in the weekly staff meeting and the well-meaning manager who read the article in HBR about gratitude starts the meeting off with "What's one word that describes your state of mind?" and everybody dutifully goes through the call-and-response of throwing something upbeat or positive into the word cloud. "Family" "Support" "Opportunity" "Hopeful"...

The list goes on and on, and if your life is filled with something really heavy and uncomfortable, you get that bad feeling in your stomach as you try to rake up some innocuous word to throw out there that won't tip you over the edge or make things "weird".

The foundation of team trust and safety is eroded every time that happens.

I'm a radical positivity activist and happiness researcher. I know there are ways we can biohack our brains and bodies to feel better, sort of a targeted, strategic "fake it til you make it". I'm also a very serious realist, and I know that sometimes, things are NOT GOOD in our worlds. Emotions are not meant to be artwork we display, carefully curated for public consumption - they're our emotional and physical way of translating the world around us, in shorthand. If we feel some flavour of "good" (see the "feelings wheel" for some variations on that), we can rest easy knowing things are probably OK, and if we're more on the "scared" or "sad" or "angry" spectrum, there's probably something going on that we need to deal with, process, or otherwise manage.

Back to that office meeting. I applaud the intention of seeking balance through consciously sifting through the zillions of bits of data around us and gleaning the good to help offset the YUCK that our Survival Hall Monitor (limbic system) keeps.. errr.. front of mind (sorry, couldn't help myself!). We know that we're wired to be hyper-aware of bad stuff, because that's how we survive - literally. We also know that it takes multiple "good" experiences to sort of balance out all that "bad". So yes, gratitude journals and positive thinking practices and activities like this ARE beneficial to our overall well-being - and that includes our professional sense of well-being.

The danger comes in when we start seeing this as a means to gloss over, ignore, or, intentionally or otherwise, make unsafe the sharing the authentic experiences in our lives. We don't want to be uncomfortable, so we pretend we're OK, or worse, HAPPY... even when we really, really are not. "This is fine", indeed.

Maybe when that random stranger on the street says "How's it going?" you don't need to divulge that your spouse just left you or your project is falling apart in spectacular fashion or your mom is in hospice or whatever it is that's creating those less-pleasant emotions, but being able to speak up in the workplace is a crucial, non-negotiable part of having psychological safety. And that includes not having to lie about how you're feeling.

This doesn't mean you need to vomit everything all over everyone indiscriminately. There's a big difference between saying "I'm frustrated today" and launching into a 20 minute rant about how your teenagers won't help around the house and you're overwhelmed and your dog is sick and you really need the extra support and... and... and. Even if those are all very valid stressors, it's good to know your audience and be intentional in when, where, and how much you share.

And, it's helpful to consider that we're complicated creatures living emotionally complex lives. We can be simultaneously excited and rage-filled and nervous and infatuated and so much more. But if you find yourself reaching for the Smiley Face mask every time you're asked to express an emotion, it might be time to take a good look at WHY... and maybe do something about it.

#HappinessIsCourage, y'all, even if you're not feeling happy right now.


(Originally posted on my LinkedIn Profile. Please connect!)



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