Massage therapists are caring people who want to provide the best possible support to clients. Sometimes, in a desire to be helpful, therapists inadvertently minimize a client’s experience or invalidate the client’s emotions through “equalizing.”
People who equalize always try to see the bright side of a situation and balance anything negative with a positive. There is nothing wrong with cultivating a positive attitude to life’s ups and downs in our personal lives. However, equalizing is misplaced in a session room because it prevents clients from experiencing their genuine feelings and may cause clients to feel shame.
For example, imagine a client visits a massage therapist two years after recovering from a severe car accident. During the health intake interview, the client opens up to the therapist about their concern that they will never race road bikes again. The client’s old injuries cause their neck and shoulders to ache while they ride, and soon the pain is so great the client has to stop. The therapist shakes their head in sympathy and says, “Yeah, but at least you can walk. After an accident as bad as the one you describe, you just have to feel grateful about that.”
TOXIC POSITIVITY: Recently, mental health professionals have labeled extreme equalizing as “toxic positivity.” When people are obsessed with positive thinking they try to put a positive spin on all experiences.
Extreme Equalizing Creates Toxic Positivity
Recently mental health professionals have labeled extreme equalizing as “toxic positivity.” They tell us that toxic positivity is pervasive in our culture. People have developed an obsession with positive thinking and try to put a positive spin on all experiences, even those that cause grief, trauma, and harm.
We can recognize toxic positivity in our peer groups, families, social media, and session rooms. Examples include:
- “Look on the bright side.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “Happiness is a choice.”
- “It could be worse.”
- “Positive vibes only!”
- “It is what it is.”
- “It’s time to get on with it.”
If we urge clients dealing with chronic pain, soft-tissue injuries, or other challenges to focus on the situation’s positive aspects, we’re creating an unsafe environment. Likewise, we are creating an unhealthy therapeutic climate if we dismiss client frustrations and point to the positives in a case that causes clients sadness or minimizes the weight of their challenging experiences.
A client believing they should be positive in the face of adversity may ignore serious problems, avoid dealing with underlying issues, and fail to seek out support. In addition, the client may be unable to feel positive and so feel shame that they are failing.
Research demonstrates that recognizing negative emotions and expressing our frustrations is more beneficial for mental health than adopting forced positivity. So, with clients, we want to project the attitude that it’s okay to not be okay.
To honor our scope of practice, we listen or offer encouraging words free of advice. We point clients towards specific support groups, physical therapists, orthopedic specialists, or mental health professionals as appropriate. In the scenario above, the therapist only needed to hear and acknowledge the biker’s concerns. The therapist could have said something as simple as, “Wow. That’s tough! How many minutes can you ride before the pain flares up?”
IT’S OKAY TO NOT BE OKAY: Research demonstrates that recognizing negative emotions and expressing our frustrations is more beneficial for mental health than adopting forced positivity. So, with clients, we want to project the attitude that it’s okay to not be okay.
Self-Awareness is Key
Bring your attention to the role that positivity plays in both your personal and professional life. Sometimes, you’ll find that you use positivity to help you generate solutions to problems or soften into acceptance of a situation you can’t change. Alternatively, you might find that you used forced optimism, cheerfulness, hope, forgiveness, or positive thinking to stifle difficult emotions or avoid dealing with problems.
Listen to yourself during interactions with clients. Are you equalizing? Are you constantly on the lookout for the bright spot? If yes, notice that you are equalizing. Now, try communication strategies that allow people to process their experiences safely. Acknowledge the experience of the client. For example:
- “I can understand why you feel as you do.”
- “That sounds really hard.”
- “Ouch. I can imagine how much that hurts.”
- “That’s tough. How do you experience this situation manifesting in your muscles and joints?”
- “I’m here to support you with massage.”
- “I know of a great counselor who can help you process what’s happening right now.”
Identifying the difference between healthy positivity and toxic positivity is challenging for everyone. However, by learning to recognize forced positive thinking, we can offer clients authentic support and point them towards resources that can make a difference when they need help massage can’t provide.
Effective communication is part of establishing and maintaining healthy professional boundaries with clients. Don’t miss your chance to register for free access as we celebrate the launch of our new digital textbook titled, Boundaries: The Foundation of Ethical Massage Practice. Offer expires December 31, 2021.
- Alvarez, B. When Too Much of a Good Attitude Becomes Toxic. National Education Association. Available at https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/when-too-much-good-attitude-becomes-toxic. Viewed November 2021.
- Fisher, M.R. How the “Culture of Positivity” Debilitates Fear Studies. University of Calgary, available at https://prism.ucalgary.ca/bitstream/handle/1880/110207/Tech%20Paper%2081.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y, 2020.
- Fivush, R. How Being Positive Can Turn Toxic. Psychology Today. Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-stories-our-lives/202111/how-being-positive-can-turn-toxic. Viewed November 2021.
- Ford, B.Q. et al. The Psychological Health Benefits of Accepting Negative Emotions and Thoughts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Volume 115, Issue 6, 2015.
- Lukin, K. Toxic Positivity: Don’t Always Look on the Bright Side: Truly Process Your Emotions Instead, 2019. Psychology Today. Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-man-cave/201908/toxic-positivity-dont-always-look-the-bright-side. Viewed November 2021.
- Razzetti, G. The Antidote to Toxic Positivity: The Dark Side of Positive Vibes. Psychology Today, 2021. Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-adaptive-mind/202107/the-antidote-toxic-positivity. Viewed November 2021.
- Sinclair, E., Hart, R., Lomas, T. Can Positivity be Counterproductive when Suffering Domestic Abuse? A Narrative Review. International Journal of Wellbeing, Volume 10, Number 01, 2020.
- Tufvesson, A. The Downsides of Positivity. Law Society of NSW Journal, Issue 73, 2020.