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Toxic Positivity

Positive or Negative, Our Thoughts Shape Our Lives

Think about it.

We’re all familiar with well-worn catchphrases extolling the benefits of positive thinking: “It’s the thought that counts.” “What you focus on expands.” Or, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” The message that our thoughts matter—and that positive thinking is a powerful tool—is nothing new. From classic titles like Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking to modern titles like The Secret, the power of positive thinking has been part of our culture for a long time.

Why our thoughts count

Our thoughts lead to our perceptions, behaviors, actions, interactions, and choices. And thought disorders like anxiety and depression can cause headaches, muscle aches, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, digestive issues, heart palpitations, and other physiological symptoms.

We’re hard-wired to hold just one thought at a time—not two contradictory ones. When the thought that we hold fills us with fear or diminishes our self-esteem rather than building resilience and courage, we’re in for a rough ride. Self-doubt leads us to low moods and a loss of confidence in our ability to handle what life brings. We then make choices based on our fears, choices that can limit our ability to live the life we want.

This does not mean that we simply dismiss negative thoughts and fears, though. In fact, doing so can lead to hurt and harm.

When positivity turns toxic

Recently, the term toxic positivity has crept into discussions about the folly of glossing over negative events, feelings, worries, and concerns with platitudes. Psychology Today blogger Tchiki Davis has offered this concise explanation of the purpose of negative emotions: “Because negative emotions are tools we use to get important needs met, we don’t just want to be shoving them away without acknowledgment.”

In short, calling out someone who expresses a negative thought can result in hurt and harm. A more compassionate response, or non-toxic positivity, involves showing up for others at our strongest and best, not to lecture or dismiss or minimize their worries or concerns, but to help them move through and address their concerns in times of trouble and self-doubt.

How our thoughts play out

Drop a pebble in still water, and watch how it impacts the surface as it moves out in expanding concentric circles. Our thoughts, moods, and actions play out the same way. We have felt the energy shift when someone in a positive state of mind enters a room, and the mood lightens.

Our thoughts have a ripple effect because they lead to our moods and behaviors. And our moods and behaviors, in turn, affect those around us. When we can take control of our thoughts, we also begin to shift and change our moods, behaviors, and the people in our lives.

We have a choice

We can choose to think about the way we think about our lives and ourselves. We can choose to challenge the truth about our negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. We can go for that promotion and take a leap of faith that leads us into a more rewarding career or relationship.

To a large extent, we are what we think. If we think we can handle whatever comes our way, we move through the world with a sense of confidence rather than dread and trepidation. When we realize the power of how we think about ourselves and the world around us, we can begin to take control.

The past is in the past, and the future is just our imagination. We can pay attention to our thoughts, examine the veracity of our negative thoughts, and move out into the world—and the future—in a positive state of mind, at our authentically highest and best.

How to begin to build awareness around your thoughts

  • Think about your thoughts. Pause and reflect at the end of each day. Think about your thoughts and how they played out over the course of your day.
  • Stay connected to your authentic feelings. Acknowledge and address negative thoughts and feelings.
  • Practice replacing a negative thought with a positive one. Pay attention to the effect this has on your day.
  • Realize that you can take control of your thoughts, choose to examine the truth of negative thoughts, and replace thoughts that do not support you at your highest and best.


Click here to see my Think About It! TEDx talk on taking control of negative thoughts and self-limiting beliefs.

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