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Why Emphasizing Positivity Over Authenticity In Mindfulness Instruction Is Not Trauma-Informed

By Meghan LeBorious

“Your attitude determines your altitude.”

“Whatever the mind can conceive and believe it can achieve.”

“The key is to see the glass as half full.”

We’ve all heard these expressions on the power of positivity. Most of us believe that a positive mindset is important for living a good life. And most of us very much want to embody positivity, and to encourage the people around us to do the same.

But serious problems can arise when we prioritize positivity or optimism over authenticity in mindfulness instruction, especially when it comes to students who have experienced multiple traumas and might regularly experience painful emotions.

Over the past six years and with the support of my administrators, I’ve created a mindfulness program at my own public high school in Brooklyn, New York. We’ve added on a little more each year in direct response to students’ needs; and at this point, I teach all incoming 9th grade students and support mindfulness, Restorative Justice, and SEL practices schoolwide.

In a unit on dealing with difficult emotions, I include a lesson on toxic positivity – the idea that when we go too far with positivity it can have dire consequences. Genuine optimism is wonderful, but toxic positivity is when we take positivity to the point that it is damaging and shuts down the rest of our emotions. A 9th grade student wrote, “Toxic positivity is the concept that focuses on so-called positive emotions and rejects anything that may trigger negative emotions.”

Although as adults when we encourage students to be positive our intention might be to help, we need to be aware that we may be inadvertently causing harm. The consequences of toxic positivity include shutting down our emotions, disabling our ability to relate to others’ real emotions, inhibiting our ability to form close relationships, and stopping us from seeking help when we need it. Toxic positivity can also contribute to anxiety, depression, and even suicide because when students bottle up or try to cover up their real feelings there is no way to resolve them, heal, or seek help.

If we overemphasize positivity instead of teaching our children to be authentic and empowered, we run the risk of giving them the unspoken message that something is wrong with them when difficult feelings arise. That if they just had more strength of character they could wrestle anger, sadness, fear, self-hatred, jealousy, and anxiety to the ground to stand smiling and victorious over their conquered enemies.

Another high school student wrote, “I notice that many people try to hide their real emotions with the emotions that they are told they must have.”

Instead of accidentally teaching students to disown their real feelings (and therefore their real selves) the antidote to toxic positivity is to emphasize authenticity instead. We can invite students to meet all emotions with an attitude of acceptance and curiosity, knowing at once that emotions are temporary and don’t necessarily need to be acted out to be felt fully.

This means that we as teachers have to model acceptance and authenticity. Sometimes our rush to encourage students to look on the bright side comes up because we don’t have the tools or bandwidth to deal with the emotions that come up for us when a student expresses strong emotions. It can seem like good intentions, but sometimes the root cause is to put a stop to the discomfort we ourselves are feeling.

My 11-year-old son, Simon, recently went through a period of negativity following eight grueling months of pandemic restrictions. Suddenly my creative, inquisitive child seemed angry, resentful, and disaffected by the things he had previously been passionate about.

I panicked. I feared for his future. As a teacher, I knew too well what can happen to kids who frequently express negativity in the classroom. I also feared that children of color, like my own precious son, were especially vulnerable to teachers with unexamined implicit biases who aren’t willing to extend the benefit of doubt.

My self-worth and skill as a parent also took a hit. I started lecturing him - trying to help him see how important it was for him to have a pleasant and positive attitude.

Following a period of slammed doors, guilt trips, and hurt feelings, I remembered the core teachings I’m such a big proponent of. Thankfully, I was able to shift my perspective and let Simon know that I love and accept him no matter what, even when he is experiencing difficult feelings. His whole body seemed to relax with relief. He shared that more than anything, he wanted to be positive, and that he was suffering a lot because he couldn’t seem to shake the difficult thoughts and feelings.

As he settled down and gave himself permission to feel whatever he was feeling, the negativity dissolved and became less of a constant force.

In the words of an 11th grade student, “Toxic positivity is when you feel guilty or like a burden for feeling anything other than happy/positive. It stops you from understanding and feeling your emotions – causing you to carry around all these negative emotions, weighing down your spirit, causing you to feel self hatred, and dragging out your period of sadness.”

What we choose to emphasize matters. Students, especially those who have experienced trauma, do not need another reason to feel like something is wrong with them. When we create the conditions for students to work with the full range of their real emotions, we assist them in stepping into their own self-healing and empowerment – the real work of mindfulness for youth.

Emphasizing authenticity and acceptance over positivity may be especially critical for students of color, who have the added challenge of dealing with racism on a daily basis, and who have been given the message far too many times that their feelings are not real or don’t matter.

If there is a secret sauce in my classroom, this is it. Everything that you feel is totally normal and understandable. What you feel matters. What you believe matters. You matter. In this emotionally safe container, before long the students are the ones creating the space for one another to be real, present, and courageous.

There are many valid healing modalities available to our children, but the teaching of total acceptance for the full range of emotions is one thing that distinguishes mindfulness and makes it uniquely powerful. Undercutting it with “just look on the bright side” messages diminishes the transformative power of mindfulness.

When we accept our beautiful children in all that they are, we teach them to say yes to life, to care about their feelings and opinions, and, ironically, we might even wind up with truly positive children, who deeply understand their own worth and who shine from within, of their own self-blessing.

Meghan LeBorious is a writer, teacher, and meditation facilitator. She currently teaches mindfulness to teens at Cobble Hill High School of American Studies, where she is also the Social and Emotional Learning Coordinator. She is passionate about sharing mindfulness tools for empowerment and self-healing with students and families. Meghan holds the following degrees: BA in Art History, BFA in Painting, MFA in Mixed Media Fine Arts, and MS in the Education of Urban Adolescents with Disabilities. She is also a graduate of the Mindful Schools yearlong certification program, a trained Restorative Justice facilitator, and a certified teacher in the 5Rhythms dance and movement meditation tradition. She has been formally practicing meditation since 2006. The photo a the top of this article is of the Mindfulness Studio at Cobble Hill School of American Studies, Brooklyn, NY.


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