Toxic Positivity: When ‘Good Vibes Only’ Goes Too Far

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When Hanna Olivas was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2017, at age 42, she was angry at first, and then she was terrified. Her doctors agreed on one thing: This kind of blood cancer is incurable. But they couldn’t forecast how much time she had left to live. “One doctor told me you have about a year. Another told me you have about 5. One doctor told me 6. Another said he didn’t know,” Olivas says. 

Some of her friends, on the other hand, were mystifyingly upbeat. On social media and in person, they would tell her things like “You’re fine!” “You’ve got this!” “You’re a fighter!” They suggested medicines and vitamins for her to try and continually assured her it would all work out, because she’s a warrior. 

Olivas knew they were trying to help. But their persistent pep felt dismissive, shutting down any real conversation. 

“I’m like, hey, wait a minute. There’s not an ounce of positivity in me right now,” says Olivas, who lives in Las Vegas. “I’m really upset, and I have every right to be.” 

Being positive and optimistic is one thing. But if it goes too far, it can cross the line into so-called toxic positivity. It can happen in all kinds of circumstances, including health concerns, job loss, relationship struggles, pregnancy or fertility concerns, grief, and loss. At its core, toxic positivity oversimplifies a complicated situation and tries to put an endlessly sunny spin on it, regardless of reality.

 

Even if someone means well, if they’re serving up toxic positivity, the result is “unrelenting pressure to be happy, or be pursuing happiness, no matter what the situation is,” says psychotherapist Whitney Goodman. We do it to ourselves and other people, and it’s become so pervasive in our culture that she wrote a book about it called Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy. She says she got the idea for the book around 2019, when she saw perpetual positivity sweep social media and show up in sessions with her patients. 

“It was like there was this social contract we were all subscribing to that we were supposed to be happy all the time,” Goodman says. “And if you’re not trying to be more positive, or you can’t achieve it, you’re somehow failing.” 

It’s an impossible standard, and one that could cause harm. Constant positivity requires suppressing emotions that may be negative and uncomfortable – and pushing those feelings away doesn’t resolve anything, Goodman notes. “That negative feeling that is uncomfortable to you is really just going to show up worse in other areas of life,” she says. “So you might see things like sleep disruption, disruption in your mood, or [in] your eating patterns.” 

Plus, Goodman says, toxic positivity can isolate both the person giving it out and the person receiving it. If you feel as though a friend expects you to always look on the bright side, you may avoid talking about your feelings because you don’t want to be silenced or feel judged.

The determination to remain rosy regardless of circumstances can also have roots in culture and religion, says Kimberly Applewhite, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and program director of the Dialectical 

Behavior Therapy Program at the Utah Center for Evidence Based Treatment in Salt Lake City. “Some people who share my racial cultural frame [as a Black woman from the South] might have a transgenerational experience of being vulnerable to harm if they disclose their true feelings, and as such may mask their emotional experience with a smile and hopeful platitudes,” she says.

In religion, Applewhite says shunning negativity can take different forms. For some, it might mean showing little or no emotion at a funeral because the deceased person is “in a better place”; they don’t want others to question their belief in the afterlife if they grieve openly. In other traditions, Applewhite says, some people use the phrase, “I’m too blessed to be stressed” when good things happen and bad. “Sometimes this is a great strategy for viewing things in balance,” she says. “But if someone uses this phrase to dismiss their own struggles at a difficult time, it may again stop them from getting help they need.”

Everything happens for a reason. Time heals all wounds. Positive vibes only. God only gives you what you can handle. You’re strong enough to handle this. Think happy thoughts. If you’ve used these phrases when a friend or family member is venting or struggling, it’s possible you’ve veered into toxic positivity, despite your best intentions. These tips will help prevent that.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Applewhite says when patients reveal these kinds of tendencies, it’s an opportunity for her to pause with them and encourage them to check in with themselves and examine why they respond this way. “The pressure to use certain coping strategies, whether they seem healthy or not, whether positive or negative, is generally something to be curious about, and often comes from something that has been learned as a protective strategy from some perceived slight,” she says. 

People who respond in overly positive ways are often trying to avoid feelings of discomfort, Applewhite says. She suggests mindfulness strategies as a way they can get more comfortable with those emotions.

Check your language. Evaluating and discarding certain phrases can help. If you find that your default is to look for a silver lining in every situation, to the point that you dismiss your full reality, Applewhite suggests switching to more fact-based responses when talking to others and even yourself. “Rather than saying ‘It’s OK,’ or ‘Life happens!’ you might say something like ‘I’m having a hard time right now, and I look forward to this moment passing.’” 

If you often try to fix things when a friend opens up to you, that could be a tell, too. Rather than offer solutions or change the conversation to something more comfortable, ask questions, Goodman says. “Learn how to be more curious about people’s experiences. And give people the space to actually talk about what’s going on.” 

For many, these lessons are learned the hard way. Olivas, who is still being treated for her condition, started calling people out on their toxic positivity – gently. “I’ve had to learn how to use my voice and advocate for myself,” she says. “I believe in speaking in real talk, not what I call ‘the puff puff stuff.’” In 2020, she co-founded a marketing and publishing business, called She Rises Studios, to empower other women who are facing or have faced tragedies, as well. 

Show up, be real, and ask questions. That’s Olivas’s advice. “I don’t think toxic positivity is done on purpose. I think people just don’t know and they’re so wired to say what they think is the right thing,” she says. “But if they really listen when we’re talking instead of thinking that they have to give us an answer or a suggestion, it would be a lot better.’”

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