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, thepsychologygroup.com, 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 nextbigideaclub.com):
- 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…”
- 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…”
- 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…”
- 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…”
- 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.
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