toxic positivity

When Looking at the Bright Side Becomes “Toxic Positivity”

Some people can put a positive spin on anything. They see a silver lining in every storm and are able to find good in every sad story. And normally, we like these people because they are overall pleasant to be around. But sometimes there is an over-exaggeration to making all things “super” positive and cheery, when, in fact, some things should be treated with realism. It is that overly shiny and chipper response to even the truly awful things in life that can be toxic, and that is what we’ll discuss today!

We’re all familiar with optimism versus pessimism.

It’s probably safe to say that most people would prefer to be around a positive person than a Debbie-downer. You know the ones; they have a reason to complain about everything. Someone could hand them a check for $1,000,000 and their response would be, “great, I bet the taxes on this will be ridiculous.” What? No. We like positivity. Positivity is encouraging. It’s what keeps us going on a bad day, or bad month, or a bad couple of years. The ability to stay positive through negative circumstances requires strength, perseverance, and often a supportive community.

There’s a big difference between being a positive person and forcing toxic positivity on others, though.

What is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation, people should maintain a positive mindset. It’s the “good vibes only” type of people. They believe that even in the worst of circumstances, if we all just stay positive, everything will work out.

Allow me to share an example of good positivity even under negative circumstances…

A friend of mine, we’ll call her Beverly, was telling me about her childhood the other day. She grew up dirt poor, in the projects and on food stamps. Her real father beat her mom, leaving her battered and bruised. Not one, but two of her homes burned down before the age of six. Her mom met her stepdad when Beverly was three and they were together off and on since then – complete with affairs, drugs, alcohol, restraining orders, and countless chaotic fights. We won’t even begin with Beverly’s brother, who’s been in and out of jail for as long as she can remember. There have been nights when she didn’t know where she and her family would sleep and days when, if not for the kindness of strangers, she’d have gone hungry.

I’m not sharing Beverly’s story to gain her any pity. She’s grown and doing quite well for herself these days. I share it to point out that even though she experienced terrible circumstances, she remained positive.

She was never the annoying kind of positive though, never unrealistically positive. She recognized that bad things happen to good people and that sometimes, life just isn’t fair. But that ultimately, each day you wake up breathing and with a handful of people who love you, life is worth celebrating. When I asked Beverly how she remained positive against such adversity, she only had one word. Perspective.

Perspective Teaches Us

perspectiveIt’s perspective that teaches us that no matter how bad we have it, someone else out there would always rather have our worst problems than whatever it is they are facing in their own lives. It’s perspective that teaches us that even though the grass may look greener on the other side, it’s really an illusion. It’s perspective that taught Beverly that even though her childhood was not ideal, it made her the strong woman she is today and she’s thankful for every minute of it, good and bad.

The ability to see things from another perspective is a skill that I believe we are all innately given. But at some point, it becomes a choice we make – consider how someone, other than ourselves and our experiences, may see a situation, or ignore that and continue looking at it through our own eyes only. If this skill isn’t exercised, it becomes weak.

That’s when traits like toxic positivity can creep in.

This can be harmful because when we fail to see things from someone else’s perspective, we are invalidating and ignoring their very real feelings.

Being positive about a situation is a good thing. Take back-to-school during Covid for example, because what else do people talk about these days? Let’s say someone at your kid’s school tests positive for Covid. The school calls you at work and says, “Mr. Parent. Your child… Covid positive… Quarantine.” The school is very nice. They explain how everything works and that your child won’t miss any schoolwork. Someone will work with them virtually. They’re very sorry for the inconvenience. It sucks, they get it. But ultimately, everything is fine.

This is an example of reasonable positivity. The school acknowledged that it’s a crummy situation and provided some of the tangible ways they’re able to help ease the stress. They understand that this is not fun for anyone, but if you all work together, it’ll be just another thing you have to deal with, and it will pass.

Now let’s flip to an example of the same situation, but as toxic positivity. “Hi, Mr. Parent! Great news!! You get to spend 2 weeks at home with your child! There was the minor incident of a little Covid positive test. But this is great news! This will be a wonderful opportunity for you to grow your relationship with little Johnny while you spend time at home with him! We’re so excited for you!!!”

I wish I was exaggerating. But I’m sure we have all also stumbled upon a person, or perhaps even an entire organization, who has been guilty of this sort of toxic positivity. This is a kind of cringe-worthy response to an unfavorable situation that completely ignores the fact that there are real human beings, with real lives and real problems involved.

Of course, there will be bad news. It happens.

That bad news can be anywhere from the toilet is out of order, to our fees are going up, to I’m sorry about the loss of your loved one. Whatever the “bad news”, we should agree that before delivering it, we should try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes first. Try to see things from their perspective and decide if and how much positivity is a good fit.

1. Do not force positivity. Things are not always good.

In the case of the school, they failed to recognize and consider that the parent had a job or a life outside of caring for their child and that they are concerned about the impact of having a highly contagious virus spreading to weaker members of their family. The same applies to the toilet. Say they’re installing a new toilet. Anyone who gives it a second thought can see that a shiny new toilet later will not help someone who needs to go now. These are just facts. Don’t try to force good news that doesn’t exist. Just. Be. Real.

2. Do not ignore the bad news. It’s real. Don’t pretend it is not.

do not force positivity

Higher fees? Of course, businesses must raise rates from time to time. There is no shade of lipstick you can put on that pig that is going to make your customers excited to give you more of their hard-earned money, especially in a recession, in the middle of a global pandemic. Given the option, which would you rather pay for the same thing, $5 or $10? I bet you picked the lower one. Less is better. Just be honest, costs have increased. It sucks, but it’s a business. People are smart enough to understand that. Don’t try to put some made-up positive spin on it. You will only insult the intelligence of your customers who have been loyal to you and your business.

3. It’s OK to not be OK.

If you’ve said to someone who has lost a loved one something along the lines of, “everything happens for a reason.”, go ahead and put that in your box of things to not say again. People die. And sometimes they die for no good reason whatsoever and it is terrible, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and soul-crushing. I know it is often our first instinct as humans to have something to say. But there is nothing that makes it better, except proper grieving and time. Comments like this can do more harm than good. It’s probably another blog for another day, but condolences like this can leave a person dealing with grief feeling lonely, shameful, or confused about their emotions for their lost loved one. It’s better just to say you’re sorry and let them know you’re here for them if they need anything. Because it’s OK to not be OK sometimes.

The common thread amongst each of these is that they all consider the other person’s perspective first. If you are that person who is able to remain positive come what may, that’s wonderful. Not every person or every circumstance calls for all the levels of positivity you’re able to muster up. So, while there are certainly times to spin a positive angle on situations, just keep in mind that not every situation is deserving of cheer – in those cases just keep it real. We are all in this together.

Sending you light and love,

~ You are worthy. You are capable. You are enough! ~

Claibourne Counseling Scottsdale



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