Toxic positivity: imposing positivity does not work
A concept that has regularly cropped up in publications in recent years is toxic positivity. Perhaps a surprising term. Can positivity be negative? What's up with that? Let's take a closer look.
Use of the term
The term toxic positivity is reflected in some recently published books such as Susan Cain's Bittersweet and Whitney Goodman's Toxic positivity. Many popular psychology websites have also written articles about it see (for example here, here and here). To my knowledge, relatively little empirical research has been done. Here 's one of the few studies I found; it is about the frequent use of toxic positivity on sites like Facebook.
What is Toxic Positivity?
Toxic positivity is based on the belief that expressing negative thoughts and feelings is bad, even in response to situations of loss, adversity, or hardship, and that only thinking and feeling positive is good. It can manifest itself in two situations:
- Self-imposed: It can manifest itself in response to negative thoughts and feelings of your own. Examples are: trying to suppress these feelings and thoughts, putting pressure on yourself to stay positive and feeling guilty about negative thoughts and feelings that still keep floating to the surface.
- Imposed on others: It can be expressed in response to negative expressions by others. Examples include encouraging others to stay positive, looking on the bright side, and saying things could have been worse.
What doesn't work
Below are some negative consequences that can occur after toxic positivity:
- Failure to solve solvable problems: If people find themselves in bad circumstances that could be dealt with but are told to focus on the positive, it can lead to their solvable problems not being solved (e.g. staying in an abusive relationship).
- People feel misunderstood: When people express negative feelings or thoughts and are confronted with toxic positivity, chances are they feel they are not being taken seriously. This impairs the quality of the relationship between the two people.
- Avoiding seeking help and getting isolated: If you don't feel like expressing negative thoughts and feelings, you are less likely to take real problems seriously and seek help. This can lead to isolation or a feeling of loneliness.
- Guilt, shame, negative self-image: suppressing negative emotions is known as an ineffective way of dealing with emotions. Negative emotions normally cannot be pushed aside. Continuing to feel those negative emotions can lead to guilt, shame, and a negative self-image (for example, “Why am I such a negative? Why am I not positive like other people?”)
Intentions behind toxic positivity
Toxic positivity can come from the desire to silence a person who is expressing themselves negatively. This can happen on the assumption that such behavior is holding up the process or perhaps dragging others into negativity.
But it can also, and I suspect this is more often the case, come from good intentions. You want things to be good for you and others rather than bad. When people tell you about difficult experiences, for example of loss or illness, we often find it difficult to think of how best to respond. However, we know right away that we wish them good things. What then seems more logical to recommend the shortest route to that positivity, for example by encouraging them?
Examples of toxic positivity
Here are examples of expressions associated with toxic positivity:
- Cheer up, it could have been worse!
- It is what it is!
- Look at it on the bright side!
- Everything happens with a reason
- There's no point in worrying
- Don't be so gloomy, you!
- Everything will be fine in the end!
- It will all be okay
- If I can do it, so can you!
- Go do something fun!
- Have faith!
- Let it go!
- Banish negativity from your life!
What can you do instead?
Instead of the above, you should develop some other ways of thinking and acting, such as:
- View negative thoughts and feelings as normal: life inevitably offers many setbacks and hardships in addition to many beautiful and pleasant things. So it is normal to have negative thoughts and feelings on a regular basis. So it is not necessarily the case that something goes wrong if we or others express ourselves negatively.
- View negative thoughts and feelings as useful: it is of course not so nice to have them at the moment, but they can help us. In this article you can read about how different situations call for different emotions. In certain situations, negative emotions are more appropriate than positive ones.
- Make room for negativity: In conversations we can learn to make room for expressing negativity. By offering space, listening, asking and responding seriously to negative statements, the chance that the other person feels taken seriously increases and that the quality of the relationship improves. It also increases the chance that you can jointly identify effective solutions or coping strategies.
What can you do if the other person asks for your help?
Just because negative feelings are normal and that it's okay to allow space for them doesn't mean we should linger in them forever. They can help us improve things in our lives. These can be the circumstances in which we find ourselves but also things within ourselves. So it's okay to use negative thoughts and feelings to make progress.
In addition to the tips above, here are some specific conversation and session techniques that can be helpful when the person you're talking to is open to your help and looking for improvement:
- The coping question: A question that helps your interlocutors gain insight into what things are still there that make it possible for them to persevere in difficult circumstances. Example “How do you manage to persevere?”
- The continuation question: A question intended to help your conversation partner gain insight into what does not need to change. Example “What does not need to change because things are going well enough?”
- 5 Principles for Reframing Negative Events: This is a way of communicating with people that is much more likely to help than imposing positivity.
- The CPW 7-step approach: A progress-focused question structure that is often used in coaching conversations. The structure works well to think about what you want to achieve and how you can take steps forward.
- The circle technique: Progress-focused technique in which two circles make visible what has already been achieved and what still needs to be achieved. This flexible technique can be used in coaching conversations as well as in team meetings.
To my knowledge, toxic positivity is a fairly new concept and little research has been done on it. So we probably still need to learn a lot about it.
What already seems interesting to me is the idea that imposing positivity does not work. Gwenda Schlundt Bodien recently wrote the following in an article: “Getting positive conversation partners is not so much the goal, the goal is to make progress in the specific situation. This is often accompanied by more positive expressions and more positive perspectives, but that is more a side effect of progress-focused interventions than an objective in itself. It can even be counterproductive to try to get your interlocutors positive. When you do your best to make the other person see the positive side, it can actually trigger a reactance effect.”