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 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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!