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Can You Be Accidentally Toxic?

How to spot and neutralize toxic positivity.

Key points

  • Positivity can turn toxic when we use it to suppress underlying emotions or shame people out of their feelings.
  • Positivity can seem like a shortcut to feeling better but avoiding “negative” feelings can make them worse.
  • Rather than defaulting to the positive, it is important to sit with and learn from our difficult emotions and help others do it, too.

Let’s start with a diagnostic. Take this quick toxic positivity quiz:

  1. When you feel unpleasant emotions (like sadness or fear), do you quickly force yourself to cheer up or notice the bright side?
  2. If you’re dissatisfied with something in your life, do you feel guilty for being insufficiently grateful for what you have?
  3. When people you care about are down or upset, do you try to cheer them up even if they haven’t asked you to?
  4. Do you tend to say things like “everything happens for a reason,” “try to find the positive,” or “at least it’s not as bad as it could be,” as a way to help others feel better?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have fallen prey to the pervasive phenomenon known as ‘toxic positivity.’ Whitney Goodman, psychotherapist and author of the book Toxic Positivity (2022), defines toxic positivity as “an unrelenting pressure to be happy all the time, no matter the circumstance, and particularly in our deepest moments of struggle.” It is a pressure we place on ourselves and on others. And paradoxically, this perpetual pursuit of positivity tends to backfire.

What makes toxic positivity ‘toxic?’

Emotions such as joy, gratitude, and love are healthy and important mental states. There doesn’t seem to be any research demonstrating that we can overdo it on the feel-good feelings. But positivity can turn toxic when it is used as an attempt to suppress or avoid underlying emotions or to shame people out of their thoughts and feelings. More often than not, doing so has the opposite effect, resulting in heightened feelings of stress, shame, guilt, and loneliness.

A ‘positivity mask’ can also interfere with our ability to understand and address our underlying needs. It can even draw attention away from harmful systemic factors by placing blame on the impacted individual. For example, telling someone who is experiencing discimination to “cheer up” or “be grateful” does nothing to change the reality of discrimination for them or others.

Why do we do it?

To quit toxic positivity habits, it helps to understand what drives them. For starters, emotions like anger, sorrow, disappointment, and envy feel bad. They are unpleasant to experience and uncomfortable to watch others experience. In these moments, a push for positivity can feel like a shortcut to feeling better even if the effort typically results in a dead end.

To make matters more confusing, findings from the field of psychology have shown that cultivating positive emotions has many healthy consequences (Seligman et al., 2005). For example, a daily gratitude practice has a modest but significant impact on our well-being (Gregg & Cheavens, 2021). But there is an important difference between a daily positivity practice and defaulting to positivity as a cure-all. Think of practicing gratitude on a regular basis as analogous to brushing your teeth every day: It is a healthy and helpful habit. But if you need a root canal, no amount of toothpaste will solve that problem. And while taking a painkiller temporarily removes your discomfort, avoiding the real issue can just make the problem much worse. Similarly, Goodman argues that, in times of deep emotional pain, a pat on the back and words of advice that can fit on a bumper sticker will not provide lasting relief. To paraphrase Carl Jung, “What we resist persists.”

What can we do instead?

In Toxic Positivity, Goodman explains that the simple (yet challenging) alternative to toxic positivity is a respect for all emotions and their value. If we did not feel pain, we would experience dangerous injuries on a daily basis. Similarly, our painful emotions can guide us to make healthy choices.

When you notice an emotion rise up in yourself or others:

  • Acknowledge it: Name the feeling or sensations.
  • Validate it: Recognize that the feeling makes sense.
  • Sit with it: Create space to feel the feeling without judgment.
  • Expand it: Ask questions to try to spot the underlying needs.

For example, if you didn’t get a job that you wanted ...:

  • Acknowledge it: I’m feeling disappointed, sad, embarrassed, and tired.
  • Validate it: It makes sense that I feel this way considering how hard I worked and how badly I wanted it.
  • Sit with it: I’m going to give myself guilt-free permission to wallow in this feeling today.
  • Expand it: What hurts most about this disappointment? What do I need right now?

If a friend has been diagnosed with an illness ...:

  • Acknowledge it: It sounds like you’re feeling scared and out of control right now?
  • Validate it: That is scary news.
  • Sit with it: Would you like to talk about what’s on your mind? I imagine it’s a whole lot.
  • Expand it: How can I be there for you right now? It’s okay if you’re not sure.

When in doubt, simply remind yourself to listen to the feeling—your own or others’. Don’t try to come up with solutions until the feeling is fully understood. Without this step, even the mightiest of pep talks will fall flat.

This post summarizes the Toxic Positivity episode of our podcast, Talk Psych to Me.

References

Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy (Whitney Goodman, 2022)

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005)

Gratitude Interventions: Effective Self-help? A Meta-analysis of the Impact on Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety (David R. Cregg & Jennifer S. Cheavens, 2021)

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