Many of you have taken the Gallup Strengthsfinder© Assessment, an assessment that identifies your top 5 strengths. When we leverage our strengths, we are happier, less stressed, more creative, more productive, more likely to achieve our goals and more able to grow and develop. Yet a strength that is overused can become a weakness. I call that the “shadow” of a strength. Positivity is a strength; in fact, it’s one of my top 5 strengths. But if I overuse my positivity, not only do I seem naïve and insincere, it can become toxic to those around me.
The definition of toxic positivity is the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.
How To Recognize It
Below are some common expressions and experiences of toxic positivity to help you recognize how it shows up in everyday life.
- Hiding/Masking your true feelings.
- Trying to “just get on with it” by stuffing/dismissing an emotion(s).
- Feeling guilty for feeling what you feel.
- Minimizing other people’s experiences with “feel good” quotes or statements.
- Trying to give someone perspective (e.g., “it could be worse”) instead of validating their emotional experience.
- Shaming or chastising others for expressing frustration or anything other than positivity.
- Brushing off things that are bothering you with “It is what it is.”
A Real Example
Optimism is important because it expresses hope and builds empowerment. But positivity that is offered to stifle someone in a crisis is exceedingly toxic. Recently, a colleague shared their experience with me:
I appreciate what you had to say in today’s training about toxic positivity. It makes me think of when our daughter lost her baby at birth. In an effort to comfort her, many people offered platitudes that helped them past their own discomfort with not really knowing what to say. But it left her feeling more alone than ever. It would have been so much more helpful to offer their own sorrow over her loss and let her know they love her and are there for her.
Practice Non-Toxic Statements
|Toxic Positivity||Non-toxic Statements|
|Don’t think about it, stay positive!||Describe what you’re feeling, I’m listening.|
|Don’t worry, be happy!||I see that you’re really stressed, anything I can do?|
|Failure is not an option.||Failure is a part of growth and success.|
|Everything will work out in the end.||This is really hard. I’m thinking of you.|
|Positive vibes only!||I’m here for you through both the good and the bad.|
|If I can do it, so can you!||Everyone’s story, abilities, limitations are different, and that’s okay.|
|Delete negativity.||Suffering is a part of life, you are not alone.|
|Look for the silver lining.||I see you. I’m here for you.|
|Everything happens for a reason.||Sometimes we can draw the short straw in life. How can I support you during this hard time?|
|It could be worse.||That sucks. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.|
According to Samara Quintero (LMFT, CHT) and Jamie Long (PsyD) of The Psychology Group, “by curating a fake emotional world, we attract more fakeness resulting in counterfeit intimacy and superficial friendships.” To be a healthy human, we need to feel our feelings, be able to identify and name them and therefore work through them to release the power they have over us. If you recognize yourself as a spreader of toxic positivity, it’s time to stop. You’re hurting yourself and the people you care about most. In the Positivity Project, we are not encouraging avoiding discomfort. We want to provide you with tools and exercises that will help you be fully aware of what’s happening around you and what you’re feeling — so you will be able to move forward and thrive.
Gross, J.J., & Levenson, R.W. (1997) Hiding feelings: The acute effects of inhibiting negative and positive emotion. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 107(1), 95-103.