There’s nothing wrong with feeling cheery and optimistic, but a sunny disposition can definitely be taken too far. “Toxic positivity” is a perspective that goes overboard on having a positive mindset, suggesting that positivity is the only way to approach things, no matter how bad life gets. This “good vibes only” way of looking at the world rejects and glosses over negative emotions in favour of positive ones, even if the positive feelings seem forced or fake.
If you’ve ever gone through a breakup, you’re almost sure to have encountered toxic positivity from family or friends. Toxic positivity phrases are common, and the person saying them usually has good intentions. Often they are trying to help or make someone feel better, but their intentions fall flat because many of us were never taught how to communicate empathy or compassion. Instead of a genuine expression of our understanding and care, we end up at toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity has been everywhere in the COVID-19 pandemic. You can see it clearly in social media posts encouraging us to look on the bright side of our personal pandemic-related struggles or suggesting that we’re falling short in some way if we don’t use stay at home orders or layoffs as an opportunity to get really fit, start a side hustle, learn a new skill, or organize the entire house. It’s okay if the pandemic has brought about some positive experiences for you, and it’s wonderful if you’ve been able to find moments of joy amid this global crisis. Comments like the ones above, however, gloss over the very real difficulties of the pandemic to focus only on the positive.
While seemingly innocuous on its surface, toxic positivity hurts us in a number of ways. For one, it’s invalidating. When we respond to someone’s negative emotions with toxic positivity, it sends the message that we don’t really see them or that we think their feelings are wrong or unnecessary. If we’re on the receiving end, we may feel unseen, misunderstood, or shut down. This can contribute to the stigma that exists around mental health. When we meet emotional difficulty with invalidation and dismissal, it reinforces the idea that we shouldn’t talk about our problems. It may also reinforce the idea that we shouldn’t acknowledge our problems internally, causing us to suppress our pain. But suppressing an emotion doesn’t mean it’s gone away. In fact, trying not to feel a feeling can actually make it bigger.
Toxic positivity is also isolating. Social support helps us cope with stressors, but if we can’t acknowledge each other’s stressors as emotionally difficult we ultimately leave each other to face life’s adversities alone. The pandemic has been exceptionally painful for a lot of people. Denying them the freedom to express any grief, anger, fear, or sadness they might be feeling is only going to make their experience harder.
So how can we avoid toxic positivity? A good first step is to recognize that suffering is a part of life. We might resort to toxic positivity because being with other people in their suffering brings up uncomfortable feelings for us. It’s hard to remember that the world can be a painful place, so we try to gloss over the other person’s negativity to avoid acknowledging the truth about our shared human condition. When you can accept that no one gets through life unscathed it becomes easier to let people have their difficult feelings.
Because toxic positivity is invalidating, making an effort to validate another person’s emotions is a good way to avoid toxic positivity in conversation. Try to show that you see the other person’s pain and that it’s okay for them to feel what they’re feeling. You might even share that their emotions make sense in light of the situation. Then, you can offer kindness, compassion, or support in whatever way feels doable and appropriate to you. Expressions of care can be deeply soothing when we’re in emotional pain. One caveat here is to keep your own boundaries in mind. You don’t have to commit to providing support in a way that erases your needs in the moment.
For specific examples of how to avoid toxic positivity, you can try swapping these common toxic positivity phrases for more validating and supportive statements:
What other toxic positivity phrases have you heard or used during the pandemic? How might you reframe those to be more validating and supportive? We need each other when we’re not okay, and it’s okay not to be okay right now.