The Danger of Toxic Positivity

It was a few months ago. I was speaking to a friend on the phone who was struggling. She wasn’t going to be seeing any family for Christmas due to the pandemic and vulnerable ages of her parents and in-laws. She also hadn’t seen friends in quite a few weeks because of how bad the cases were in her city. She missed people, she missed her family, and she was still trying to wrap her head around celebrating the most joyful holiday of the year without the people she loved, surrounding her. As soon as she let this confession out, she was quick to follow-up with “But I’m so thankful for my health and no one is sick. I’m really grateful. I really don’t have a reason to complain. Everything is fine and could be completely worse.”

This is toxic positivity.

Another friend lived in Texas during the freeze in February. They lost electricity for days, forcing her, her husband, and her newly one-year-old baby to seek shelter and warmth with another family. During their evacuation, a pipe burst, flooding their home. She still tried to react only positively. “It could have been worse. At least we are alive–other Texans died. At least I still have my family.”

This is toxic positivity.

It doesn’t even have to be a dramatic event. It can be something small. We have the courage to be vulnerable for a second, but we must immediately follow up with some way of minimizing it, making sure those who are listening to us know we are still positive, we are not complaining, and we will look positively to the future.

I personally blame this habit on my southern charm upbringing. The sweet, southern girl persona was definitely inherited and I always strove to be friendly and polite. But growing up as a millennial, especially when positive mental health was stressed as an adult, I was introduced to the concept of being open to vulnerability, a wonderful trait that Brene Brown taught us. And it is here where we hold the tension: we want to share a struggle or hardship, we want to be brave in honesty, but then we pause. Is this polite? Will this person think I’m being negative? Do I sound ungrateful? And then I feel that click in my chest to immediately flood positive affirmations to my previously “negative” statement. “But everything is fine. I really can’t complain. It will all work out. I already see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Speaking of, let’s talk about that light and tunnel. I am in no way trying to say we shouldn’t try to find positive aspects or shouldn’t look forward to a time where we can move on from a certain struggle. By no means, am I trying to do that.

But I very much think there is a fine line with pushing positive thoughts on ourselves and others because it is uncomfortable for us to stay in suffering.

And God forbid if we or someone else starts to cry. I think our immediate reaction is to make the hurt stop and move on from the awkward moment. We want to dress up the confession, make it pretty and slap it with a bow, as if to say, I’m allowed to say vulnerable and negative things as long as reframe it afterward. I think instead we should stay there, soak it in, and stay in the uncomfortableness that is life.

It may sound counterintuitive to encourage you to feel your pain and sadness. We live in a society that encourages us to quickly move on from any feeling that is unwanted. Check your social media feeds, have a scoop of ice cream, turn on Netflix. However, I don’t think that helps us at all in the long term. The remnants of toxic positivity in my own life have made me feel that I’m not allowed to struggle or confess my struggles. That I must always put a happy face on and be positive, positive, positive. Only share the good parts, never the parts that aren’t pretty.

I would like to challenge you for the next time you hear toxic positivity. When a friend or loved one shares a difficult experience, or place to be, and they try to dismiss themselves, interrupt them.

Say “I don’t care that others have it worse, this must be hard for you. I would feel hurt/lost/emotional. It is so understandable you are feeling the way you are feeling. And thank you for telling me.”

The last thing we need to do is engage in comparative suffering. Sometimes others just need permission to feel the extent of their emotions.

Our culture is a long way from breaking toxic positivity, I know.

But that’s okay. I believe in starting small, doing our part to impact the bigger difference. Challenge yourself, look for it in your own life. When you notice yourself starting to downplay your struggles, stop yourself. And if you’re not comfortable voicing this to others, that’s completely fine too. Try to stop toxic positivity in your own thoughts. And always, when a dear friend is facing the brave act of confessing their hard moments, stay in it with them. Support them, console them, but don’t let them negate their own suffering by comparing it or trying to put a positive spin. Affirm them and let them know it’s okay to feel in the mess of life. And of course, that you will always be there, no matter how ugly it can get. 

A kid at heart, Katie loves all things writing, Harry Potter and musicals. At any moment, she is down for either a cup of coffee or margarita. Her passions are building and improving her community of Lafayette, where she was born and raised, and teaching her one daughter to have a British accent. (Not so successful at that last part yet). She spends her day as a nonprofit ambassador, helping nonprofits amplify their mission and creating more social good.