May 10

“Toxic Positivity” a Trend That’s Got to Go

In the midst of a rising tide of social hatred, a seeming countertrend, toxic positivity, has also infected this culture. As defined by mental health professionals Samara Quintero, LMFT, CHT, and Jamie Long, PsyD,, this phenomenon is defined as “…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.”

What, then, is positivity without toxicity? Dani DiPirro, blogger at Positively Present: “Positivity is about assessing the situation, understanding your feelings, looking to see if there’s anything you can do to make the situation better, and, if there’s not, doing what you can to make the most of whatever the situation is. It’s not about pretending. And it’s definitely not about happiness.”

A new book by therapist Whitney Goodman, Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy, expands on this topic. From the publisher:  

Every day, we’re bombarded with pressure to be positive. From ‘good vibes only’ and ‘life is good’ memes, to endless advice, to ‘look on the bright side,’ we’re constantly told that the key to happiness is silencing negativity wherever it crops up, in ourselves and in others. Even when faced with illness, loss, breakups, and other challenges, there’s little space for talking about our real feelings—and processing them so that we can feel better and move forward.

But if all this positivity is the answer, why are so many of us anxious, depressed, and burned out?

Five essential points Goodman makes in Toxic Positivity (per

  1. Positivity can hurt. “…Positivity itself isn’t toxic. It becomes toxic when used at the wrong time and with the wrong topics. Toxic positivity denies an emotion…”
  2. Complaining effectively“’Having a place to vent’ is actually one of the most common reasons people ask to work with me…To eliminate complaining is not the answer—what matters is improving how you complain…”
  3. Listen, understand, validate, and empathize. “…When you don’t know what to say to someone who is struggling, strive to include these four ingredients in your communication…”
  4. Intent matters. Impact matters more. “…I want you to know that there’s no perfect thing to say. Everyone has their own preferences and sensitivities…”
  5. Stop trying to be happy. “…I know, it sounds counterintuitive, but research shows that the more people see happiness as a goal, the less happy they are…Instead of pursuing happiness, I want you to pursue fulfillment through a value-driven life. A value-driven life makes room for the fact that living in accordance with our values doesn’t always mean feeling happy, but it is in alignment with who we are and what we want.”

Wrongheaded positivity can take the form of gaslighting, states the Publishers Weekly review, which “perpetuates oppressive systems and prejudice (‘discrimination with a smile’).” Further elaboration: 

 She backs it all up with copious amounts of research, examples from clients she’s worked with (unfortunately, though, too few of them), and her own life experiences….In a genre dominated by the upbeat, Goodman’s realism both stands out and takes the edge off; as she says, ‘It’s OK if you don’t always say the right thing; you’re not a Hallmark card.’ Goodman matter-of-factly challenges genre status quo, while maintaining respect for its readers.

Apr 24

Complaining Effectively (Or Not): Guy Winch’s “The Squeaky Wheel”

So many noted individuals have spoken out against complaining. But is this tendency to complain about complaining at all fair to this timeless and widespread practice?

A few of the anti-complainers:

Maya Angelou: “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”

Randy Pausch: “Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier.”

Eckhart Tolle: “When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.”

Presumably, though, some of this is actually a semantic issue. Therapist (and standup comic) Guy Winch, author of the highly rated The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem (2011)explains this in Psychology Today:

Complaining and whining can be distinguished by the nature of the dissatisfaction and by our motivation for expressing it. Complaining involves voicing fair and legitimate dissatisfactions with the goal of attaining a resolution or remedy. When we voice legitimate dissatisfactions but do so without the goal of attaining a resolution we are merely venting. And when the dissatisfactions we voice are trivial or inconsequential and not worthy of special attention, we are whining.

In this model, then, complaining is good; whining bad. Venting somewhere in between.

On the benefits of complaining, Winch further states, “Speaking up about a complaint and attaining a resolution makes us feel empowered, assertive, effective, and resourceful. It can boost our self-esteem and enhance our feelings of efficacy. It can help us battle depression, improve our relationships, salvage partnerships, and deepen friendships.”

That doesn’t mean, on the other hand, that all inner complaints are worth mentioning; so, an important step is figuring out which ones are. For example, in an intimate relationship, which issues can you let go of and/or figure out on your own and which are worth risking the possibility of overt tension and conflict?

Winch proposes asking oneself five questions before proceeding (Psychology Today). (Refer to the post for more details.)

  1. What do I want to achieve? “Knowing the answers will help you express what you actually want more clearly—and make it more likely that you’ll get it.”
  2. To whom should my complaint be voiced? “You might think this one is obvious but in fact we often complain to one person about the behavior or actions of another.”
  3. What is the best venue and method to express my complaint? “While talking in person is generally best, if one member of a couple tends to be explosive or defensive, or if one is much more skilled at expressing their feelings and debating than the other, discussing an issue over email might keep the calm and give both partners a chance to collect their thoughts and think through their responses (read Why Some Couples Should Argue over Email).”
  4. What’s the best time to voice my complaint? “Be aware of the other person’s mood and tendencies and when in doubt, simply ask when they can have a discussion.”
  5. How should I phrase and structure my complaint? “The best way to structure a complaint is to use the complaint sandwich method in which you sandwich your concern between two positive statements. The first positive sentence should make the person less defensive and the second should motivate them by letting them know that if they respond to the complaint positively all will be well (i.e., you won’t carry lingering resentment).”

Below Winch elaborates on the “complaint sandwich“: