In the well-being space, messages of gratitude and optimism run rampant. And while there is nothing wrong with wanting to be happy and positive, there is everything wrong with ignoring other emotions — ones we don’t dare speak of when someone says to “look on the bright side” — that don’t align with the level of gratitude we are told we need to attract all the good that living a life of gratitude is supposed to bring. This type of optimism is called toxic positivity and it’s not helpful to any of us.
From conversations with friends and family to social media infographics to an abundance of “good vibes only” merchandise on seemingly every targeted ad, we constantly encounter toxic positivity. And, whether we know it or not, these messages of optimism subtly tell us not only to silence the other emotions we experience but that these emotions are not valid. “Many people are uncomfortable with negative feelings like sadness, grief, anxiety, and anger,” says Janette Marsac, a psychotherapist in New York City. “While often well-intentioned, toxic positivity negatively impacts people because it denies authentic support. It avoids true human emotion and can make an individual feel uncomfortable and guilty, leading to dismissal or denial of their true feelings,” she adds.
What does toxic positivity look like?
I’m no stranger to toxic positivity. In fact, I believe that I am guilty of spreading it. Phrases such as “everything happens for a reason” are a go-to line not just for others but for myself as well. If you say it, the recipient of that response might be thinking, “so, you’re saying I was supposed to be hurt? Please share this reason,” says Ginelle Krimmey, a therapist in Asheville, NC.
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Other messages of toxic positivity include phrases like, “come on, it’ll be okay,” when it’s not okay to the person you say that to. Krimmey says “you can do it!” can also feel like toxic positivity, especially if someone truly feels like they can’t do it. “I’m just looking for the good things” can feel like you’re minimizing the bad things that are very real to a person. “It demonstrates the way people simply do not know how to sit with each other in our hardest moments,” says Krimmey. “Validation is key to allowing people to feel seen and cared for. If we spent an entire relationship telling people their concerns should be ignored, pushed through, or that they’re deserved, that’s a relationship where at least one person will not feel comfortable being honest and real,” she adds.
Other toxic positivity phrases look like:
- You’ll get over it!
- Don’t be so negative.
- Think happy thoughts!
- It could be worse.
- Failure is not an option.
- Positive vibes only. (This is similar to the aforementioned “good vibes only.”)
- If I can do it, you can do it!
- Just be happy.
- You should feel grateful.
- No excuses.
- Don’t waste time being sad!
How to deal with toxic positivity
Dealing with toxic positivity starts with some awareness around your own relationship to others and how you might be accidentally contributing to the spread. While it can be uncomfortable and challenging, holding space for others and allowing the other emotions that aren’t full of rainbows and butterflies to be present, can make a difference. “When we can sit with someone and say ‘wow, that sounds hard. Share more about how that feels so I can really get it,’ or ‘tell me how you’re approaching the problem, and let me know if you want my thoughts,’ we can actually demonstrate care,” says Krimmey. “We don’t try to change what someone is feeling. We don’t try to change their situation or bypass its existence. We approach instead of avoiding and say, ‘this is real and, if they can handle it, I can handle hearing about it and the way it makes me feel,’” she adds.
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Being on the receiving end and responding to toxic positivity can actually be more of a challenge. “Telling people what they’re doing isn’t okay with you is often the hardest part of relationships,” says Krimmey. This is especially true when you’re already feeling vulnerable.
Like most things, dealing with toxic positivity from the recipient side can take some practice. Here are some strategies for addressing toxic positivity:
- Pause the conversation: If you notice you’re being invalidated and can sense that the person is avoiding your true feelings or trying to solve your problem to make the problem they are experiencing (discomfort around certain feelings), Krimmey says to pause the conversation. “Let the person know what you’d like from them instead.
- Share your wishes upfront: One way to receive the validation or feel better held by a conversation is to share your expectations and wishes ahead of time. Krimmey says phrases such as “I just want to vent, I don’t need advice,” or “will you tell me if I sound unreasonable here?” or “please help me think through all of my options here” are good to keep in your back pocket. “This could prevent a good amount of mismatched caregiving attempts by our loved ones who are really doing their best with no formal training in being caring and supportive,” says Krimmey.
- Address the pattern: If you feel more advanced in your relational skills and are comfortable offering feedback around a pattern of toxic positivity, Krimmey says addressing the behavior can be beneficial. With that said, Krimmey says that this is the type of feedback that warrants some consent before providing, or else you might find that the person you address it with becomes defensive and makes comments like, “well, that’s what I do and I am fine!” or “okay, then stop coming to me for help if I am so bad at it.” Asking for consent before providing feedback can help you see if the person is open to hearing about how their attempts to support you are or are not effective. Krimmey suggests approaching it like this: “I could really like to keep having your support with my life and I am not sure if I am getting it. Can I tell you something I’ve noticed about our dynamic?” If a person agrees to you sharing your thoughts, “it’s more likely they can hear the feedback you have to offer,” says Krimmey.