Toxic Positivity in Missions

What is positive toxicity? Is it something that Christians, and particularly missionaries, need to be wary of? What about our call to be light in the darkness in this troubled world?

Toxic positivity is not just an optimistic or hopeful outlook on life. It is the insistence that, despite the gravity of a situation or the depth of emotional pain one has experienced, one should strive to only feel and express positive emotions. It is an insincere or fake positivity and the oversimplifying or overlooking of complex emotions and situations as you put pressure on yourself or others to ignore negative emotions and artificially speed up the timeline of getting back to the “positive” as soon as possible.

Toxic positivity is a hallmark of our modern-day culture with its emphasis on the pursuit of happiness (fleeting as it may be) and its single-minded chase of “positive vibes only.” This culture has even seeped into some of our churches, leading many to believe a skewed theology in which “rejoice in the Lord always” means never allowing yourself to recognize or validate feelings of sorrow, discouragement, anger, frustration, fear, or anxiety.

For many, positive toxicity can be a form of self-protection. By refusing to acknowledge those negative emotions in themselves or in others, they are seemingly freeing themselves from the heavy burdens or thoughts that accompany those difficult emotions.

For missionaries, it’s easy to see how this could become a serious temptation. For newly arrived missionaries, toxic positivity may be a coping method that they use to try to manage the overwhelming effects of culture shock and to reassure themselves and others that they made the right decision upending their life for this. For seasoned missionaries who have likely had their fair share of betrayal, failure, trauma, or disappointment, toxic positivity can be a way of barricading themselves off from “one more thing,” or it may be deployed to, by their own might, chisel away at the heart of stone they might have noticed forming in their chest.

While there are certainly benefits to trying to have a more positive outlook on life, sometimes we go overboard or astray. How might toxic positivity manifest on the mission field?

  • Internally shaming yourself for ever thinking anything negative about the ministry or God
  • Publicly or privately shaming those missionaries who openly share their struggles with the culture or with host-country nationals and labeling them as “those of little faith” or “immature”
  • Imposing a timeline on someone’s healing (either your own or someone else’s) with suggestions that they should “just get over it” and move on more quickly from a painful or traumatic event
  • Over-compensation, an exaggerated attempt to overcome or diminish negative feelings (inferiority, guilt) by overworking oneself, using excessive flattery, or self-promoting
  • Using scripture out of context to minimize someone’s experiences or feelings by giving them a “new perspective” (i.e., “It could be worse” or “God’s got a plan”) before validating their feelings
  • Refusal to acknowledge someone’s hurt feelings by glossing over those parts of a conversation
  • Newsletters and social media posts that portray a one-sided view of the ministry in an attempt to convince partners, and possibly yourself, that “everything is fine” even if it might not be
  • Overlooking any criticism or critique of the ministry as just someone being “too negative”
  • Suggesting “quick fixes” or suggesting you simply “press on” in difficult or complex situations in an attempt to steer the conversation away from the hard reality that is being experienced
  • Blaming people for their own situations or struggles rather than first empathizing with them
  • Assertation of a very black-and-white interpretation of a situation rather than acknowledging the nuance and seeking discernment together

Have you found yourself believing these types of messages and doing these types of things to yourself or fellow missionaries? Have you been blindsided, hurt, shamed, or confused by someone doing it to you? What was the result?

Unfortunately, responding to hurt or difficult situations by ignoring these negative feelings and spewing out the positive has the potential to make things worse in the long run. Overwhelming the negative with positive may work in math and science, but it does not work in matters of the heart.

Toxic positivity can lead up to the buildup of emotions that are never dealt with, resulting in anxiety, depression, cognitive dissonance, overcompensation, and feelings of powerlessness, shame, or guilt. It can cause people to question their own experiences, and it can undermine one’s sense of reality, which can be very disconcerting, particularly for those who are already struggling to grapple with the disorientation of cross-cultural living. Toxic positivity leads to the breakdown of relationships and safe spaces and isolates people from each other and their support systems, making the chance that they might experience burnout even more likely.

Most importantly, toxic positivity does not reflect the heart of our God, who created the full range of human emotions and is able and willing to sympathize with us in our weakness and times of trouble. Toxic positivity is not how we shine a light on the darkness because toxic positivity is a reaction that stems from fear and shame rather than faith. It focuses on self-reliance to “power through” and create or shine our own light rather than calling us to step into the light through surrender to the one true God. Toxic positivity is a shallow substitute for the hope of the gospel and a genuine relationship with Christ.

How can we do better and avoid toxic positivity?

Rather than asking ourselves or others to ignore the messy, difficult, uncomfortable feelings of this life overseas, let’s use our words and our actions to point toward Christ, who alone can provide true healing and comfort in the midst of our weakness.

Rather than toxic positivity, let’s practice empathy, compassion, and authenticity.

Let’s be devoted to one another in love and be a safe space for our fellow missionaries to let go of their strivings and find peace as they are reminded that we and God are here for them, no matter what.

Let’s listen before we speak, acknowledge other people’s emotions as real and meaningful, give grace to those who are struggling (including ourselves), and bear one another’s burdens by mourning with those who mourn just as our Savior did.

Let’s remind each other that failure and sorrows are not the end, though they may be our reality right now, and that the negative things that we experience and feel are just as real and as useful in drawing us near to Christ as are the times of unbridled joy and celebration.

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Anna Glenn

Anna Glenn served as an agricultural missionary with her husband in Liberia, West Africa from 2016-2022. She now works back in her home state of Maryland doing agriculture education and youth development while staying involved with local and international missions. Her writing now focuses on her experiences integrating back into the American culture, reflections on her time in missions, and advocacy for better missionary care and support.

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