You may have heard the term toxic positivity before but what does it really mean? Can positivity be toxic? The answer is yes. According to Tabitha Kirkland, a psychologist and associate teaching professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Psychology, “Toxic positivity is a way of responding to your own or someone else’s suffering that comes across as a lack of empathy. It dismisses emotions instead of affirming them and could come from a place of discomfort.”
Some examples of toxic positivity include:
- Hiding/Masking your true feelings, saying things like “I’m fine,” or “everything is okay” when you/things clearly aren't.
- 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 like “just think positive,” “don’t worry, be happy!” or “if I can do it, so can you.”
- 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; again “good vibes only!”
- Brushing off things that are bothering you with an “it is what it is” or a shallow “everything happens for a reason.
Being overly positive can also negatively impact our relationships. If you are someone who is constantly invalidating or minimizing others feelings with dismissing statements, people can interpret that as being fake or hard to connect with. Toxic positivity can also negatively affect your children, if you are a parent or guardian. “With children, our impulse may be to tell them, ‘You’re OK’ or ‘It’s not a big deal’ or ‘Stop crying, everything is fine.’ This teaches them that their negative feelings aren’t OK and can be influential on how they develop and process their concepts about emotion, and how they learn to express or not express their own emotions,” Kirkland explains.
So how do we avoid toxic positivity? The first step is practicing empathy. When we practice empathy, we truly meet the needs of others by listening and supporting them. Empathy is an essential element to any healthy relationship and we need to have strong empathy practices if we want to strengthen our mind and our connections. When we use toxic positivity phrases like “it’s not that bad” or “it could be worse” when our friends are speaking with us, we tend to invalidate their feelings or even devalue their emotions. Remind yourself that oftentimes when someone needs an ear they simply need someone to listen, not provide feedback
But if you find yourself in a position where someone is asking for feedback or words of encouragement, it's important to adjust our language to avoid toxic phrases. Here are some “Harmful to Helpful” phrases that can get you started on your journey:
- Avoid “It’s all good!” Instead say “I know this is really hard. I appreciate you sharing this with me.:
- Avoid “Be happy!” Instead say “I’m so sorry you are going through this. I’m here if you’d like to talk.”
- Avoid “Look on the bright side!” Instead say “I’m not sure what to say. I want to help.”
- Avoid “Be positive!” Instead say “That’s rough. I can understand why you’d feel that way. How can I help?”
- Avoid “Be grateful!” Instead say “That sounds difficult. How are you, really?”
- Avoid “Good vibes only!” Instead say “How are you? I want you to feel that you can be honest with me.”