What Is…Toxic Positivity?

Today’s post is the next installment in the “What is _____?” series, where I go over terms used commonly in social justice circles that may sound like jargon to some.

Today’s “What is_____?” post will focus on a term that I’ve started to hear more about in the mental health and chronic illness communities: toxic positivity. It’s a term that I think is particularly relevant right now during this coronavirus pandemic, hence the reason for publishing this post today, rather than waiting until later during this series.

Toxic positivity is when there is a focus on positive things and positive thinking while, at the same time, rejecting or minimizing emotions that aren’t happy or positive. Examples of toxic positivity can include phrases and sentiments such as “don’t worry so much,” “it’ll be fine” (especially if it’s something chronic or serious that won’t 100% heal), “just think positive,” and “don’t worry, be happy.” Phrases like these, while not ill-intended, can come across as trying to minimize, invalidate, or suppress negative emotions, which is why the positivity is toxic.

It is especially problematic to suppress the negative when you’re living in a time like the coronavirus pandemic. There are times when suppressing the negative is equivalent to suppressing reality. And now is one of those times when to me, at least, suppressing the negative is equivalent to suppressing reality, because reality is that we have suffered great losses in New York City and not even attempts to suppress the negative would take away that reality.

You might be wondering, though, how to avoid this well-intended, yet toxic, positivity. I’ve heard different takes on this, but here’s mine, for the time being: instead of trying to suppress negative thoughts, show empathy. Instead of suppressing the sadness of a friend who just found out about a close relative passing away, try to be sympathetic to what the friend or family member is going through. Instead of trying to tell others not to worry, be a listening ear when they do worry. Instead of telling others to “just think positive,” be willing to talk through the negative emotions if your friend wants to talk through such feelings with you.

In many if not most cases (at least in my experience), people who struggle with toxic positivity genuinely want to help their friend, their family member, or their neighbor. However, there are times when positivity at the expense of minimizing negative emotions is not the best way to go about things, and that empathy is the best course of action, in my assessment. That being said, if any of my readers have alternates to toxic positivity that I didn’t mention here (because there are different takes on toxic positivity and the alternatives to it), or any thoughts on the topic of toxic positivity, I welcome the suggestions and feedback!

21 Replies to “What Is…Toxic Positivity?”

  1. Hi, thanks for this post.

    Two thoughts.

    1. Toxic positivity can be very hurtful/damaging to a person who suffers any kind of issue (illness, bereavement, depression etc.). It can make you feel like a failure to not be “able” to be positive.

    2. I do think people are well intentioned, but I also think that people do NOT want to deal with the “negatives” or with the reality of suffering, because it is uncomfortable and inconvenient.

    I was recently part of a Zoom group where toxic positivity was oozing out every moment. Even thousands of people dying in this pandemic wasn’t an issue as the Zoom participants were in early isolation and “untouchable”.

    The heck with the world as long as me, myself and I am safe and have a smile on my face.

    I also have an ” allergy” to toxic positivity as I worked under emotional labour at work where we were forced to smile and present a cheeriness to get customers coming back.

    This is tested by weekly Mystery Shoppers (I call them “Misery” Shoppers) who test low paid fastfood workers how much they smile, give eye contact, chat….kiss butt all day.

    If they kiss butt well, they’re rewarded bonus & extra cash rewards, if they fail they get fear managed.

    I was bullied during traumatic bereavement and even taken aside by management when I couldn’t smile, as managment bonuses relied to the biggest part on Mystery Shopper results.

    So, toxic positivity is like a virus to me, an emotional pandemic in the world that manipulates people for greed and to which I stay away from for life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

      You are definitely right that customer service/serving people is a field where you are expected to put a positive face even if you are going through difficult times.

      I think that your comment that many people do not want to deal with the negatives is absolutely key, and absolutely true. My theory as to why that was the case is that some of us want to avoid what is difficult, and working through raw emotions is…well…difficult.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. We experience all kinds of emotions and all are valid. To suppress one won’t work, it will find other ways to come to the surface. It is crucial to express them in times like these. Expressed emotions make it possible to connect to others and that can relieve some pain. Very relevant post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re absolutely right. I also find that by trying to suppress them, they come back worse than if I didn’t suppress them, at least for me. Generally, giving people the space and opportunity to have “feels,” as some of us say nowadays, is best.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Being the listener is not always comfortable, but sometimes the best thing you can do for another is to give them the space, and the ear, to express their true emotions, and not to try and create a positive from the negative. Sometimes just listening while saying nothing is the one true way of showing love and acceptance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. Especially when you’re the talker/an extrovert, the temptation is to want to interject and to give some sort of encouragement. But, that is not always the best approach to take, and listening is better.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting and for sharing your post.

      I think there is definitely a time and a place for everything, including positivity and feeling down (and everything in between). Where I think it becomes a problem is when we try to suppress the negative even when that might be what feels most natural.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Good post, Branden. I know from experience that not acknowledging negative feelings and learning effective ways to deal with them is very important. I will, hopefully, never stuff a negative feeling again.

    Liked by 1 person

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