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Susan David: Beware toxic positivity

Forcing positivity can create more harm than good in society and within workplaces, according to psychologist and author Susan David

In her talk at the World Business Forum London 2019, the author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life described how being positive has become "a form of moral correctness", but said that organisations should instead focus on creating psychological safety so that employees can process complex, challenging events.

”Our inner world drives everything we do, so how can we deal with our emotions in times of complexity?" she said. "We have been taught to think that our emotions are good or bad, but this way of thinking is rigid."

David recounted her own emotional struggles growing up in South Africa: "I grew up in apartheid Africa, where I saw first hand how denying the reality of a situation can have a destructive power over an entire country. But before I truly understood what this could do socially or politically, I understood it on a personal level.

“After my father died when I was young, I drifted through education without dropping a single grade. Many of us in business act this way; we find a way to get on with it, regardless of what is happening in our personal lives. But outside of school, I was struggling. My family were financially and emotionally ravaged, and I had turned towards binging and purging on food as a way to numb the intense emotional pain I was going through.”

David said that through expressing her emotions, she was able to better deal with her grief: "One day my eighth grade teacher gave us all a black notebook and told everyone – though it felt like it was aimed at me – to write down everything that we were thinking and feeling, right there and then, and to tell the truth. And just like that, I was able to express my pain. I still have that notebook. It was the start of a lifelong relationship with looking at my own heart.”

She explained that these experiences led her to think about how ill-equipped society is for dealing with moments of crisis: “Things can change at any moment. You can go from being young and getting attention to becoming invisible; you can go from feeling useful in your organisation to feeling invisible.

"As a society we are not dealing with this well. In recent research, out of 70,000 people a third said that they saw emotions as positive or negative, good or bad."

She added: “Denial has led to us overlooking the destruction of our planet and ice caps melting. By bottling up our emotions from our organisations, our colleagues and our families, we fail to deal with the world as it is.”

Instead individuals and organisations should focus on creating psychological safety in order to thrive, she said: “When we are stressed, our creativity can become stifled. Similarly, when I was grieving I was focusing on how I should feel and now how I did feel. But if we can create an environment of psychological safety people can thrive and bring the best of themselves forward.”

Rather than denying emotions, we must learn to accept them and think about what they are showing us, David explained: “Our emotions can often act as signposts for what we want. If you notice that you feel sad, is that because you don’t feel your team has your back? Is it because you don’t feel like you’re in the right job? They can reveal what we care about and what we value.

“When we can face our realities and say 'yes, there may be uncertainty and chaos, but what do we want to be and what are our values?' we move away from doing things out of shame and obligation. We start moving towards a place where we understand the 'why' and can bring the best of ourselves.”