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Toxic Positivity

The sign you see here hangs in our entryway. It serves as a reminder for me, a marginally recovering perfectionist, to lighten up about life. We’re about a lot of things here at Kind World Publishing, including, of course, kindness. But one thing I’m keenly aware of and actively attempting to avoid along with perfectionism is toxic positivity.

You might have heard the phrase toxic positivity recently, as we wade through the pandemic and the state of the world. Messages to “stay strong” and “do your best!” and “be grateful” and “you’ve got this!” are everywhere, and they can become exhausting (not to mention more extreme versions that can be used to gaslight or worse.)

Dictates and mandates to do and to be things are tough to receive. That is a truth, regardless of your age. None of us wants to be told what to do or to be, even if the intent in those directions is positive. And therein lies the rub.

When things are hard, difficult, extreme, exhausting, life-threatening, simply being told to pull ourselves up by the emotional bootstraps and just keep going does a disservice to acknowledging those painful realities. Before any of us can solve a problem, we first need to accept that a problem exists. And we need to sit with the problem, both in order to notice it and to then put it into perspective. After that, we might be able to better reach the “how” of solving it.

But if we continue to brush over those steps by cheerleading only positivity, that cheerleading becomes pretty hollow. Eventually, incessant positive messages make things worse because it sets an impossible bar of expectations for our emotions. For those who struggle with perfectionism, the expectations can be overwhelming. Hard stuff keeps piling up because it isn’t really addressed, and the space between “stay strong!” and daily realities keeps widening. How many times have you found yourself or the kids in your life on the precipice of falling through and feeling completely stuck?

Rather than telling each other how to feel and championing an impossible state of being, perhaps we should be creating space to listen to other people’s realities, and sit with our own. Rather than letting that urge to “solve it and sweep it” lead conversations, perhaps we should accept that acknowledging hard things has value unto itself.

Modeling this for the kids in our lives is critically important, to avoid setting them up for a sense of failure when they can’t make themselves feel “amazing” about something.

I am not suggesting that we stop championing each other, nor am I saying positive messages can’t be powerful. We can help avoid toxic positivity by remembering that the activities of listening and acknowledging can speak loudly too. They can say, “I see you.”

Part of reaching a positive state involves creating space to process everything that isn’t.

Post Script: If you’re looking for a broader read on this subject, Kate Bowler’s recent book No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) is worth your time. If you’d like a book that can help support kids with acknowledging obstacles, preorder The Struggle Bus by Julie Koon. We’re proud to be able to support work that addresses these topics in a practical, accessible way.

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The Transition Months

I don’t know how things are in your home, but we’ve gotten bumpy in recent days. And I have a theory on why. We just entered the Transition Months.

Yes, here in Minnesota, we have an entire month left of summer. Yes, the days are still long, the farmer’s market still bustles, the pools are still open. And yet.

We are also talking about school supplies. And who might the new teachers be? And will last year’s jackets still fit?

These short conversations have sent ripples into the ponds of imagination. Along with some excitement, I see nerves creeping in for both kids. Axel is starting Kindergarten, and that is a Really Big Change, for all of us. He is usually our peacekeeper, our jokester, our happy-go-lucky family member. But not of late.

We all sense summer winding down. We all know these changes are coming. August begs for closure and preparation for fall and school. But it also asks us to make the most of the remaining sunshine, of the opportunity to slow down just a bit longer. And September awaits, knowing so many new routines need to be created, new people need to be met, new fears need to be addressed.

It’s a lot. These are the transition months, not just of weather and time, but of our life rhythms and responsibilities, of rules and patterns and people.

A lot of unknowns float over all of us right now—enormous things beyond our control. None of that changes the cyclical truth that these months are always big months. Whether you have kids in your home or not, the social cycle shift of summer-to-fall impacts us collectively.

I am cutting myself and my family some extra slack this time around. Yes, things are bumpy. Yes, I think I know why. Sometimes, the most helpful thing we can do for ourselves is simply acknowledge that we’re in transition.

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Doing Hard Things

Today, I had to make a hard decision and follow through on it.

And it’s really hit home for me: living my best life doesn’t mean things are easy. It means that I can make decisions, even hard ones, stand behind them, and know that I’m trying to do what’s right, not necessarily what’s easy.

Sometimes we don’t know what we need to do until we’re fully in the moment. Having foresight on everything is impossible and would be utterly exhausting anyway. But, when that moment arrives (as they inevitably always do), having the ability to trust your gut, embrace the temporarily hard—but long-term best—thing to do, is a sign that you are, in fact, living your life. Not someone else’s. Not some false set of expectations or through other people’s opinions.

By and large, I don’t shelter my kids from these moments. I believe it’s important to model the decision-making process, to show them adults don’t always magically, instantly have the answer. And sometimes the answer is doing a hard thing. My hope is that by seeing me process and struggle with something, their own expectations will adjust accordingly. Perhaps they will give themselves some time and space (and a little slack) to figure out what to do in their own moments and to trust their gut, especially when it would be easier to default to the easy thing.

Glennon Doyle is right, in observing we can do hard things. Before that, though, we need to know it’s okay to do the hard thing—that we each have permission to live our own life and make those decisions in the first place. Living by other people’s expectations can make it easier to avoid the hard stuff. But after the hard stuff is often where life’s magic happens.

If you find yourself struggling with hard things, it might be worth considering: Have you given yourself permission to do them?

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Big Feelings

Today is the last day of First Grade for Reese. We’re having lots of big feelings, as a tumultuous school year comes to a close. We are so fortunate to have had wonderful teachers and a district that has managed an unprecedented-in-our-lifetimes event in an effective way.

Reese is excited for summer but very sad to say goodbye to school and her friends and teachers. It speaks volumes about an environment and its adults when a kid feels that way. Yes, she loves learning. But underneath that, I have to appreciate and look at the “why.” And it isn’t just our home environment; that love has come from a spectrum of adults who have genuinely leaned into making this situation work for kids.

The big feelings today of sadness about change, bittersweet feelings of good-bye to this chapter but excitement about the next, gratitude for the work the teachers have done, aren’t just being felt among the kiddos. I’m feeling them too, and I was caught off-guard by it.

A surprising effect of the pandemic and leaving a big company executive position to start Kind World is that it’s given me space to process emotions that I previously didn’t have bandwidth for. I have capacity to notice my feelings and to sit with them. To reflect on where they’re coming from and to put them in perspective. To slow down and cherish—yes, cherish—some sadness for a closing chapter, especially a good one.

I wonder how many of us are in similar situations? Finding space to feel things we didn’t or couldn’t previously process? Conversely, how many of us are in spaces now where that bandwidth is gone? Where there’s no room to process and so those big feelings keep piling up?

Social-emotional learning (SEL) has been a buzzword among education for some time now, and with good reason. But it’s also a real thing for us adults. We can’t help the kids in our lives with SEL if we’re not also doing some of that work. If you have the gift of time right now, are you using it to recognize some of your own big feelings? And if you know someone who could use that gift of time for some emotional breathing room, how might you create that space for them?

Happy, optimistic, sad, nervous, excited, wondering, curious, scared, relieved—experiencing these emotions means we’re alive. When we don’t have or take time to feel them, we’re missing an essential element of our existence. As I told Reese last night: being sad is a gift. It means we had a chance to experience something that’s worth missing.

Finding gratitude for change, after all, is a pretty big feeling.

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Facing Fear

Fear is a really big emotion. (In some ways, I’m afraid to attempt to write about it.) But the reality is that fear needs conversations. Fear needs to be acknowledged and discussed. The more we push it down or away, the more control that same fear has over our feelings and actions and words.

Kids and adults alike have stress responses to fear that often look like something else, whether that something is anger or frustration or procrastination. (If your child has an outburst about something, it might be a good sign to dig a little deeper. Additionally, procrastination can be tied to a fear of failure.)

We navigated some basic fears here recently as Reese prepared for a first dentist appointment that involved a cavity and filling. Naming the thing she was afraid of, talking calmly and honestly about the procedure, and openly answering questions set her up for a positive experience. Was she still scared? Yes. But at a manageable and reasonable level.

Helping the kids in your life deal with big feelings such as fear provides them with skills that carry into adulthood. When we simply dismiss fear by telling a child they shouldn’t be afraid, or that they need to “toughen up” or “grow up,” we begin to create a path of repressing a very real and very controlling emotion. Many, many things in this world are immeasurably more frightening than having a cavity filled, and rightfully so. But creating smaller moments like this one can serve as reminders of success when bigger fears need facing.

Find those moments to talk honestly about fear. You might just discover opportunities to embrace and face some of your own.