Black Churches Are Cornerstones in Our Communities—but Do They Push Toxic Positivity?

Religion is a longtime source of healing for Black families, but what happens when the message isn't delivered with care?

A Black woman has her hands up at church


Tar'Kesa Colvin felt turned off by church-goers telling her she was "blessed and highly favored" when she answered questions about her well-being honestly—she was having a rough time.

"I was having one of those days where it was hard to have faith every minute of the day," she says. Colvin, founder, and CEO of Inow Publishing and former minister-in-training, believes in God and faith, but she also wanted to be true to herself about how she was doing.

"They [made it] seem like because you belong to a particular belief system you're supposed to be walking on sunshine and it doesn't [always] work that way," she says.

Not to mention she found it problematic that they were continuously praying for the same people's health or money trouble without change. Yet, "faith without works" was rarely mentioned. "I felt like when I got baptized or joined the church, all my problems would fade away, but I was ill-prepared for real life," she says.

According to a study by Pew Research Center, three-quarters of Black Americans place great importance on religion while 83% have a strong belief in God. Those strong beliefs have become a guiding compass for navigating many of life's impasses, from slavery to hardships in marriage, the grief of loved ones, racial situations, and more. However, in some cases, that same belief in religion can lead to a cycle of ignored feelings and empty hope in pursuit of overgeneralized optimism, known as toxic positivity.

According to Medical News Today, toxic positivity is the idea that regardless of a negative situation or bad feelings, we need to be positive about challenges. It can be dismissive of feelings and force people to fake being happy rather than seeking out the resources needed to actually feel happy. Unfortunately, this leads to the inability to truly acknowledge bad feelings which can make it even more difficult to cope. It also tends to show up consistently in some religious families that seem dismissive of those truly suffering.

Like many other groups, Black Americans have a tendency to rely on their religious upbringing and spiritual family before seeking guidance from outside sources like therapists, and may even experience some reluctance about mental health care or openly sharing their feelings. The reluctance is justified, says Janee' Avent Harris, Ph.D., assistant professor and program director of counselor education at East Carolina University.

Mental health, as it relates to religion, is a nuanced topic. Avent Harris says mental health support hasn't always been accessible, safe, affirming, or culturally competent for Black people. "In some cases, it's still a problem, so there's some legitimate hesitation," she says.

And so, in some Black families, religious faith feels reliable when people don't know what else to say or how else to explain hard situations. It may sound like, "God is good all the time," "God is in control," or "God knows best." Even when it comes from a good place, it can resemble toxic positivity by failing to acknowledge the difficult situation that is happening. "The issue is that it does not leave room for the person to experience their full humanity and feel the hard emotions," says Avent Harris.

That default may not always be the best and, in some cases, may alienate and leave those suffering feeling alone.

Colvin no longer identifies as a Christian but continues to pray, practice faith, and believe in God on her terms. She allows her daughters to do the same. She and her husband agreed that they would remove themselves from the church but continued to have honest conversations about God, feelings, and religion with their now-adult children.

"A lot of times when we go straight to pray about it, we're not acknowledging their feelings, which leads to, and is a result of, a lot of adults who don't know how to communicate or understand their feelings," says Avent Harris.

Parents have the opportunity to help shape their children's relationship with faith and feelings. You can start by telling yourself that there is space to be human and spiritual and experience a continuum of emotions while still being a person of faith.

According to Avent-Harris, parents can even choose to reframe religious teachings in emotionally sensitive ways, showing that everyone has big emotions that need real solutions, even religious figures. She says it's still OK to lean on your faith in conversation with people in need. "It doesn't have to be a period," she says.

She recommends following up by validating the upset feelings and legitimizing seeking counseling or mental health care. This allows both children and adults to feel what they need to feel, recognize faith, utilize resources, and feel supported especially when they are in pain, she says.

Additionally, timing matters. A person may not be able to hear "God is good all the time," a few days after someone passes, but they may be able to hear it and appreciate it several months from then. Bottom line: "Our words carry weight, and we need to be more intentional in how we use them, especially when people are hurting," says Avent Harris.

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