Toxic Positivity: The Harmful Habit to Stop Immediately

Positivity is a good thing, right?  “Good vibes only.”  “Be happy.”  “No drama!”  These are helpful things to aim for, right?  Well, not quite.  Too much of a good thing can actually be pretty harmful.  And there’s a name for it.  Toxic positivity.  Watch below to hear the surprising way that toxic positivity is unintentionally making you, and everyone around you, feel so much worse.

 

 

If you’re a regular reader here at Dr. Allison Answers, then you know how much I love a good mantra.  Words of encouragement, coping statements, and affirmations…I’m all about encouraging self-talk.  But something concerning is happening in our culture lately.  And it’s known as toxic positivity.

 

Raise your hand if you’ve heard any of these phrases before.

  • “Good vibes only.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “It’ll be ok.”
  • “Happiness is a choice.”
  • “Just think positive.”
  • “If you put good stuff out there, good stuff comes back.”

 

Oh y’all.  These phrases genuinely hurt my heart and crush my spirit.  Because while these phrases might be well intentioned and said in an attempt to focus on the good, they’re incredibly harmful.  They’re dismissive and shaming.  And they’re minimizing of life’s real and genuine pain.  Said simply, they’re toxic.

 

One of the realities of being a human is that life can be really heavy and painful.  All around us, people are dealing with difficult and heart wrenching stuff.  Grief and loss.  Waiting to hear if your child’s treatment worked.  Ending a relationship.  Experiencing racism.  Burying a parent.  Watching the news.  Confronting sexual harassment, recovering from trauma, and struggling with mental health.  Pain, worry, heartbreak, and fear are normal and real parts of being a human.  These things and experiences bring up painful emotions.  And while these emotions aren’t pleasant or enjoyable, they’re important.  They’re important to feel, and they’re important to express.

 

But toxic positivity tells those feelings, “There’s no room for you here!  You’re bad.  You’re a buzzkill.  Go away!”

 

Toxic Positivity: The Harmful Habit to Stop Immediately, from Dr. Allison Answers

 

Toxic positivity minimizes and ignores painful feelings.  It invalidates real experiences.  And it denies basic human emotions.  Toxic positivity stifles feelings that deserve attention and compassion.  It damages relationships.  It’s shaming and blaming.  Toxic positivity is stifling, sending a subtle but clear message that there’s no space for pain.  There’s no room for the hard stuff.  Toxic positivity invalidates heavy emotions, leaving us feeling alone and isolated.  Put simply, toxic positivity makes things worse.

 

Toxic positivity hurts people you care about.  When you comfort friends with glossy, one liners, you increase their pain.  When you tell a family member, “It’ll all work out,” you unintentionally minimize their fear.  Toxic positive puts a sparkly and shiny wall up.  It uses flat and empty words to take the place of authentic connection.  And instead of being helpful or comforting, it’s soul crushing.

 

So how do you know if your positivity is toxic?  Keep a look out for these three things.

 

  1. It’s overly simple. “Just think positive.”  “It’ll get better.”  If you’re using a simple one-liner as a response to complex and deep pain, it’s likely a sign of toxic positivity.  Resist the urge to make things neat, clean, and simple.  Emotions are anything but.  Embrace the messy.
  2. It doesn’t acknowledge or leave space for pain. “Good vibes only.”  “Happiness is a choice.”  These two phrases are like drawing an imaginary force field around you, loudly yelling, “No human reactions allowed!”  Remember, we can’t squash our pain.  We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.  Leave room for the word “and.”  (Watch this video to hear how the word “and” is profoundly powerful when talking about emotions.)
  3. It uses all or nothing language, i.e. everything, nothing, everyone, no one, all the time, none of the time. “Everything happens for a reason.”  This phrase is one of the most common examples of toxic positivity.  And it’s leading word, “everything,” is a good clue.  What reason is there when a child dies or when people are murdered in a place of worship?  What reason could possibly make a cancer diagnosis easier to stomach?  How can you explain away the pain of abuse?  I know these sound like dramatic examples, but these are real examples.  These are real experiences that people carry every day.  And when you use all-encompassing words, like “everything” and “nothing,” you unintentionally speak to all of these things.

 

Toxic positivity is sneaky.  It seems helpful.  It seems encouraging.  And it seems like a helpful way to comfort someone.  But it’s just the opposite.  Toxic positivity is oversimplified, shaming, and incredibly isolating.

 

So if toxic positivity isn’t the answer, then what is?  It’s simple.  Comfort, compassion, validation, acknowledgment, and encouragement.  Real and meaningful connection.  This video is one of my older videos, but it highlights a simple and nearly foolproof method for how to comfort someone.  It’s not what you think, but it’s absolutely helpful.

 

This week, listen out for snippets of toxic positivity in your life.  Pay attention to the phrases you use.  Tune into what words are helpful and comforting from others, and notice the words that feel dismissive and minimizing.  Toxic positivity is more common than you think.  However, thankfully, we have the power to choose our words.  We have the ability to think before we speak, offering comfort and compassion over surface and sparkly.

 

Have you ever been on the receiving end of toxic positivity?  Are you guilty of unintentionally spreading toxic positivity?  How did it feel?  What did you notice?  Leave a comment; I’d love to hear!

8 Comments

  1. Mel

    I always wondered why I felt worse when I would tell people how I’m feeling and they would hit back with “just think positive” and “you’ll get over it”… now I know why. An important article, thank you!

  2. Wendy

    My boss is always dismissive and minimizing whenever I go to her with concerns. I never knew it had a name. Her comments would just enrage me more. I have a volunteer position where I deal with people who are not having the best days of their lives and have really had to work on validating feelings and giving encouragement. This has also spilled over to my personal life.

  3. I definitely know what it’s like to have my illnesses, setbacks, and tragedies dismissed like this, the “it all happens for a reason” garbage in particular is endemic to Christian culture. I’ve gotten to the point where I have stated cutting people out of my life who respond like this. Yes, it’s trivially true (we do live in a cause-and-effect universe after all); but incredibly dismissive. And I wouldn’t even say such people are “well-meaning but unhelpful”, because I don’t believe that they’re even trying to be helpful; it’s more a sort of magical thinking thinking, an “invocation” intended to push off and avoid dealing with the strong emotions that seeing others go through such difficulties engenders. It’s avoidance, not encouragement. And when used against those who have negative experiences like being the targets of bigotry, it’s a silencing tactic.

    One correction I’d make to this article, “toxic positivity” is hardly a recent thing, only the term is new. In fact, it’s been part of American culture for quite a long time, more prominent at some times than others. The cult of positive thinking has been around since the turn of the last century, more or less, under various names. I strongly recommend reading “Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America” by Barbara Ehrenreich for an in-depth examination of just how pervasive and toxic the cult of positivity truly is.

  4. Carol

    This was exactly what I neeeded to hear today. I’ve been in a deep depression for 10 days. An acquaintance ( we only have said hello & light remarks until now) began asking me questions about my family of origin. I was an unwanted child and was physically and emotionally abused,. For whatever reason, I answered authentically. The woman screamed at me that I was an angry, bitter person, that this makes people miserable. I should “let it go”. It sent me back to a very dark place of feeling that the world would be better without me ( no intention of acting upon this feeling). I didn’t know this still existed within me. As a child, my mother would “ enlighten” me by explaining it would be better if I was dead. This conversation brought that feeling back. It’s ironic that I defended this person when she was going through a rough patch with her neighbors. Her reaction to me seemed cruel. Now I’m trying to find joy in life again.

    1. Michelle

      Aw Carol,
      That is so rough! I come from a difficult family background as well – neglect, homelessness. My father also passed away recently, before his time. I grew up keeping a lid on my home life because I was embarrassed. As I grew older I stopped caring what people thought and started answering family-related questions honestly. And, well – people do not like it. They don’t want to be faced with reality nor do they know how to respond when someone seems to be at peace with the less-than-happy aspects of life. I have had people literally not respond to me or simply change the subject.
      I don’t bring things up out of the blue. I’m simply honest about who I am and where I come from when the subject comes up. In a way, I’m proud of my origins because they made me. People’s shallow and emotionally immature reactions aren’t going to stop me from embracing who I am.
      I hope you’re feeling better since you made this comment. And I hope you haven’t had to deal with that toxic person again.

  5. Mikki

    Thank you so much for this. Today finally I am able to pinpoint why I tend to keep all my feelings in when dealing with tough circumstances. People can usually say “you choose to only focus on the negative.” I want to say “no, you a.h. I do not. However TODAY I am dealing with this (insert tough situation here) and it is soul crushing.” I have actually dropped my “best friend” a year ago because after supporting her through very tough times, I went to talk to her about my own tough time and she simply said “don’t let that get you down.”

    DONE. But now I know why I am done.

    thank you!

  6. Cran Berry

    I think the essence of the issue is lost in the writing of the article. It’s dismissive, and, it sends the message that the person who issues the toxic positivity isn’t going to be bothered with your problems, to the extent that they are going to pretend your problems don’t exists, and when you’re around them, you are also going to pretend the same.

  7. I have been made a pariah thanks to toxic positivity.

    I have Complex PTSD thanks to the abuse I’ve received throughout my life – compounded by the social isolation enforced by the toxically positive. When I refuse to conform to their demands, they made a point of slandering me to everyone they knew and drove every possible friend away from me as *punishment* to dare darken their mood. They systematically ruined my life to “teach me a lesson”.

    People don’t really care about the depressed – they only care about stopping themselves from being sad, and if they have to destroy you to stay that way, they will.

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