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!

Looking to Share Emotional Burdens with a Friend? Before Sharing, Let’s Seek Consent

Consent matters.

That two-word phrase is used often these days when sexual consent is discussed. Those two words are right: consent matters, when it comes to sexual consent.

However, when you are hoping to possibly vent about a bad day at work or share something emotional or burdensome with something else, it’s also important to seek consent for doing that with the person you’re hoping to discuss with/vent to. In other words, another form of consent, that I call emotional consent, is important.

Emotional consent is when you seek someone else’s permission to tell them something(s) involving deep emotions or burdens. Through exercising this form of consent, you can share emotional, burdensome things only when the listener is physically, mentally, and emotionally able to handle it.

At this point, some of you might be thinking this: “Okay, emotional consent sounds great, but how can I exercise this?” I have four answers to that question:

  1. Ask yourself whether your friend will need to invest something significant in order to help you (whether it be time, emotional labor, or something else). If the answer is “yes,” I recommend seeking consent before sharing your burdens. If the answer is no, then chat away with your friend!
  2. Ask your friends questions along the lines of: “Can I share something heavy?” or “Can I vent about something?” if it turns out your friend does need to invest in you in some way. By asking these types of questions before moving a conversation further along, you give your friend the opportunity to say “yes” or “no,” depending on how your friend is doing. If your friend is happy to let you share, then you can share. HOWEVER, if there is an absence of an enthusiastic “yes,” ranging from “ummm…okay,” to “I guess,” to no response at all, to the straight-up “no,” then please do not think that you have emotional consent to share your burdens with your friend.
  3. If you’re going to talk about a specific type of issue or event that may bring emotions with someone (examples include sexual assault, divorce, and mental illness), make sure you give the content warning that your sharing will involve something with that specific topic. It’s important to do that because, without a content warning, you might jump right into an issue or story that reminds your friend of a traumatic event or set of events in their lives (and friends, of course, don’t want to put other friends in that type of situation).
  4. Make it clear that it’s okay if your friend does not want you to share the burden. A friend might worry that it would negatively affect the friendship if the friend is unable or unwilling to give emotional consent. However, if you reassure your friend that there is no such thing as a bad answer, even if your friend says “no,” then your friend doesn’t feel the need to listen to burdens without being emotionally ready for them.

Hopefully, what I said above gives a pretty good overview of what emotional consent is and why it’s important. However, I think it’s also extremely important to discuss what happens without that emotional consent. In my experiences of being on both the giving and receiving end of a lack of emotional consent, one or more of the following things often happens without it, none of them good:

  1. You dump burdens on the friend, and the friend doesn’t respond back because the friend just can’t emotionally deal with or consider the message, let alone respond to it.
  2. Your friend does respond, but does not give a wholehearted response because your friend just can’t handle your burdens fully at that time.
  3. Your friend just says that “I can’t handle this right now.” Or worse—your friend tells you that what you said has brought back bad memories.
  4. Your friend ends up being hurt emotionally by what you shared (whether that’s said or not), even if you didn’t intend it.

Instead of experiencing one or more of these potential events, my advice is to just seek emotional consent for heavy topics. Seek emotional consent from someone if you need to talk about your bad day at work, or something much deeper than that. If your friend consents to your talking about something(s) burdening you, then great! If not, then you will want to find someone else to talk to, as finding someone else to talk to would be in the best interests of you and your friend.

Indeed, consent matters.

Note: As emotional consent is something I consider “blindly just,” this is a “blindly just” post.

Also note that for those of you wondering how to avoid the emotional labor issues that I talked about in the post I shared on January 9, 2020 from another blogger (Arielle), emotional consent is a potential way for avoiding emotional labor issues.

Mass Shootings and Mental Health

Two weekends ago, the United States had two heavily publicized mass shootings within fewer than 24 hours of each other: one in El Paso, Texas, and one in Dayton, Ohio. Between the two mass shootings, over 30 lives were senselessly cut short. 

In the wake of such tragedies, many of us, regardless of political affiliation, try to seek out explanations for these mass shootings. But, given my own openness about mental health on this blog, I think that I need to address just how problematic it is to simply blame mass shootings on mental health problems.

Blaming mass shootings on mental health problems makes me, and other people who’ve struggled with their mental health, feel misunderstood. By blaming mass shootings on mental health problems, we are creating this portrayal of mental health issues as something that is monstrous and seeks to do harm to others. The reality, though, is that there is a range of mental health issues, many of which have nothing to do with a desire to harm others. For example, my intrusive thoughts (unwelcome, unpleasant, and upsetting thoughts and ideas), which I’ve talked about on my blog did not involve even the slightest of desires to harm anyone else; instead, the intrusive thoughts involved a fear of my wanting to do harm to myself, even though I didn’t even want to harm myself. My friends and family who have struggled with anxiety and depression (issues different from intrusive thoughts, by the way) have never expressed a desire to harm others, either. In the wake of many mass shootings, mental illness is often associated with harm of others, even though many of us have mental health issues where we fight against harm of self, not a harm of others.

The consequences of feeling or being misunderstood with mental health are serious. According to mental health experts, stigmatizing mental health issues after mass shootings likely makes it harder for people to seek the treatment they need than it would if mental health issues were not as stigmatized.[1] We, therefore, create a situation where people struggle to seek treatment for conditions that in many cases seek no harm of others, precisely because we link harm to others with mental health issues. That is not what we need if we want to address individual mental health crises.

Even though it is problematic to link mass shootings with mental health issues, we should not ignore the serious problems with America’s mental health system. We should not lose sight of the fact that the United States lacks stand-alone mental health legislation,[2] and we should not lose sight of the fact that many patients in the United States struggle to get access to mental healthcare.[3] If we want to improve individuals’ mental health, we should avoid blaming mass shootings on mental illnesses, but instead improve our mental health care system.


[1] It is worth having this quote from an American Psychological Association statement dated August 4; this quote was published in TIME Magazine: “Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded and stigmatizing. The rates of mental illness are roughly the same around the world, yet other countries are not experiencing these traumatic events as often as we face them. One critical factor is access to, and the lethality of, the weapons that are being used in these crimes. Adding racism, intolerance and bigotry to the mix is a recipe for disaster.”

[2] https://www.who.int/gho/mental_health/policy_financing/policy_health_plan/en/

[3] https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/11/29/567264925/health-insurers-are-still-skimping-on-mental-health-coverage

Addressing the Notion of “Praying Away” Mental Health Conditions

In many Christian circles, regardless of theology, there is the belief that you can often pray your troubles away. There is a belief that you can pray away financial troubles, family issues, physical illness, and yes, mental health issues as well.

While I am very supportive of praying for people who go through these different types of issues,[1] I think that it is extraordinarily important for me to use my past experiences with mental health issues to address the notion that it’s not always as simple as praying your mental health issues away, or that you are subject to condemnation if prayer doesn’t take away your mental health issues.[2]

You see, I was once one of those people who believed that if I prayed long enough and hard enough, any stress or anxiety I felt about my life would just go away. And honestly, in many of those cases, that was the case.

However, around the time of my grandpa’s death last fall, I discovered that suddenly, it wasn’t quite that easy. Far from it. To the contrary, no matter how much I prayed, I felt like I was sinking more deeply into an abyss of mental health issues. In response, I prayed all the harder, and yet I continued to struggle with unwelcome, unpleasant, and upsetting thoughts and ideas, best known as intrusive thoughts.

For a time, I suffered in silence—without a doubt the absolute worst thing I could’ve done at the time. I was worried about condemnation from others if I told anyone—condemnation for being a freak, for being weird, for the fact that I didn’t pray hard enough for all of this to go away, for the fact that I somehow didn’t rely on God enough. The last two of these fears, of course, relate to this notion that you can just “pray it away” and that there’s something wrong with you if you are not able to do that.

Thankfully, I was lucky to have a circle of loving family members and friends (most of whom are Christians, by the way; these people probably know who they are and these people mean the world to me) who didn’t condemn, who didn’t subscribe to the aforementioned beliefs about mental health and prayer. As a result, while my mental health is not always perfect (intrusive thoughts do make a comeback from time to time, seemingly around times of great change in my life), it has never reached quite the lows that it did around the time of my grandpa’s death.

If I want people to learn anything from my story, it would be that, regardless of whether you believe in the power of prayer (I certainly do!), sometimes mental health is more complicated than praying the sickness away, and we are being unjust to ourselves and others if we think it is always as simple as praying something away. Sometimes, it’s significantly more complicated than praying and requires support from family and friends, counseling, and/or therapy. And you know what? That’s okay.

So for anyone out there who is trying to pray the mental health condition away but you feel like you’re failing at it, as I was, just know that you’re not a freak, you’re not condemned, you’re not having issues with “failing to pray hard enough,” and you’re not alone.


[1] I’m a believer in Christ and proud of it. So yes, I am supportive of praying for people who are going through different varieties of struggles, because I pray for people going through different struggles all the time!

[2] If anyone is wondering what the “blind injustice” is, it’s that there’s a widespread belief that there is somehow something wrong with you if prayer does not cure you of your mental health issues.

Men and Mental Health

As some of my readers know, I’ve had some experiences with intrusive thoughts, which is when one struggles with unwelcome, unpleasant, and upsetting thoughts and ideas. These experiences led me to write about mental health from a faith (Christian faith, more specifically) point-of-view a couple of months ago.

Writing about mental health from a faith perspective is important. However, given the sobering statistic that 77% of those who die by suicide in the United States are men, as well as the fact that we are in the midst of Mental Health Awareness Month, I think it’s important to have a discussion about men and mental health.

The thing about men, at least in the United States, is that we have expectations connected to our gender identity that make it problematic to be open about our mental health. We’re taught to be tough, strong, not show weakness, not be vulnerable, and confident, to name a few. Characteristics required of us in order to improve our mental health when we’re struggling mentally—vulnerability, weakness, seeking help—are not “manly.” Attempts to live up to those ideals of being a man can, if we’re not careful, keep men from opening up to their families, friends, counselors, and therapists (that is, if one gets to the point of getting counseling or seeking therapy—as getting counseling or therapy is seeking help, doing so may not be considered “manly”).

Now, in my case, I thankfully had men AND women in my life who helped me confront those stereotypes about men before I had my bouts of intrusive thoughts. However, I have known other men in my life who’ve struggled with those stereotypes and struggle with mental health at the same time, and I can say this—it’s not easy.

I don’t have all the answers to male suicide rates, but I do think that we need to start by making it okay for men to be vulnerable, and for men to seek help. I think that Olympic Swimmer Michael Phelps’ openness about his own past struggles is admirable and breaks many stigmas about men and mental health, but we need more Michael Phelpses in the world. We need to make it clear that it is okay for everyone, including me, to not always be okay. We need to make it clear that it’s okay for a man to struggle mentally and emotionally, and that it is okay to ask for help with our mental health.

National Suicide Hotline (United States): 1-800-273-8255

International suicide hotlines from the International Bipolar Foundation can be found here.