Toxic Positivity:

Have you ever wondered what toxic positivity is? Today we will learn what it is, why we should care and how to move away from using harmful behaviors as a parent, spouse, and friend. 

First and foremost, I’d like to share a couple of definitions of what toxic positivity is. For many years I did not understand the difference between positive thinking and toxic positivity. This lack of understanding and knowledge led to many many years of emotional pain for me and for those with whom I was in relationship with.

Going to the googles I found two great definitions that I want to share with you. The first one is from former podcast guest Amy Morin. She says: “Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It’s a “good vibes only” approach to life. And while there are benefits to being an optimist and engaging in positive thinking, toxic positivity instead rejects difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful, often falsely positive, facade.”

She goes on to say: We all know that having a positive outlook on life is good for your mental well-being. The problem is that life isn’t always positive. We all deal with painful emotions and experiences. Those emotions, while often unpleasant, are important and need to be felt and dealt with. 

Definition number two from the googles shares that toxic positivity is the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset. With toxic positivity, negative emotions are seen as inherently bad. Instead, positivity and happiness are compulsively pushed, and authentic human emotional experiences are denied, minimized, or invalidated.

Examples of Toxic Positivity:

Pay attention to what you and others are saying this week. Here are some common things we say or we may hear that are an example of how we discount or invalidate people’s emotional experiences.

  • At least… (at least it wasn’t worse, at least she had a full life, at least you didn’t break both legs…”) 
  • Lets look at the bright side
  • Just Be positive
  • It could be worse
  • You should be grateful that…

Toxic positivity also shows up when we discount or dispute the emotional experience someone else is having by saying something like:

  • Don’t be upset about that.
  • You shouldn’t worry about that.
  • Don’t stress. You’ll be fine.
  • You shouldn’t cry about that!

Or, we may say more outwardly critical things like:

  • You’re over reacting
  • Don’t be so emotional
  • You’re too sensitive
  • Talk about first world problems…

Helpful note here from coach susie. This is not a time to shame yourself. We often act in ways that are modeled for us (because we don’t know any differently) and this is certainly modeled for us. In fact, based on past podcast episodes, you can probably see how toxic positivity and codependency go hand in hand. Codependency is us feeling overly invested in someone else feeling state. When we are so uncomfortable with the other person having an unpleasant feeling or experience, we often use toxic positivity. Be kind to yourself as you’re learning where these behaviors show up for you.

Why is Toxic Positivity Harmful?

How does it harm us and those with whom we’re in relationship with? Firstly, it is a primary reason of why we feel disconnected in our relationships. One of our core human needs is to feel understood. Like we matter to someone. When someone invalidates or argues with us about how we are feeling, we feel the opposite. We feel very misunderstood. 

Secondly, toxic positivity can cause guilt or shame. When we share our emotional state with someone, we open ourselves up to that person. If they respond by dismissing us or telling us we shouldn’t feel the way we’re feeling, we can feel deep shame and guilt: like our feelings are wrong. As if we are wrong for having our feelings. 

Toxic positivity is shaming. Shame loves secrecy. When we feel shame, we are reluctant to share it or to feel it to heal it. Discounting or not allowing us to feel what we’re feeling is ineffective, harmful and counterproductive. Feel deal heal. Feel it to heal it. Use whatever language you want, let’s let ourselves be human. We feel what we feel because of the thoughts we are thinking. Sometimes we manage our mind better than others. Drop the perfectionism and allow yourself and those you’re in relationship with to be human. Toxic positivity comes into play when we get into analyzing or judging our feelings instead of accepting and allowing. 

What to do?

Undoubtably, we want to get out of this pattern of behavior and relating. The question is: How? Don’t worry – I’ve got you. I spent a big portion of my life being and experiencing toxic positivity and so I am quite qualified at helping you step out as I am practicing every single day. Lets go! 

First: Active Listening

When someone is sharing their emotional experience, practice active listening. When you have the urge to fix or give advice, don’t. Stop yourself. I have many podcasts on listening and communication. If you’re a parent of a child 10-25, take my parenting class for specific steps and tools. For today, consider the goal of active listening is to seek to understand. When we seek to understand what the other person is experiencing, we are connecting and not using toxic positivity. 

Second: Empathize.

Empathizing is about understanding or sensing what the other person is feeling. It is not about agreeing with their feelings or thoughts. Let me repeat that because that’s very important: empathizing is not the same as agreeing. You can empathize with someone without agreeing with them. In fact, you can empathize and disagree. I give specific examples of how this can be in the podcast. Make sure you’re subscribed here.

Empathy is not agreement. Rather, empathy is conversing in a way that shows the person they matter to you. Their experience matters to you. You are in essence, reflecting back the answer to the question: do you get me? Does my experience matter.

Codependency is different. Codependency can look like us rushing in to fix the situation or giving unsolicited advice. Codependent behavior occurs because we are so uncomfortable with their emotional experience that we rush to fix it instead of actively listening and using empathy. 

These are all invalidating and a form of toxic positivity. Granted, our behavior is coming from the desire to help someone but it’s more effective to be with someone, not make them try to see the bright side. Presenting the message: “What you’re feeling matters. This sounds hard. I’m here for you.”

Some empathetic things to practice and say:

  • I can see this is hard for you.
  • Your feelings matter.
  • This seems hard right now.
  • Your emotions are important

And two of my favorites: “of course!” and “I can see why you feel that way”. These are two magical things to say when I empathize and don’t necessarily agree with what they’re thinking. Consider the thought model. When we are actively listening to someone we are essentially trying to learn and hear the thoughts they’re thinking. Once they tell us their thoughts, empathizing can be rather easy because we can see how the thoughts they’re thinking are causing them to feel what they’re feeling. 

Reminder: we feel what we feel because of the thoughts we’re thinking. Empathizing isn’t about agreeing with the thoughts they’re thinking., Rather, it’s like we’re saying: “I can see how, if you’re thinking those thoughts, you’d feel that way.”

Internalized Toxic Positivity

In addition to being aware of our behaviors with those we’re in relationship, it will also be helpful for us to look in the mirror. I had so much internalized toxic positivity growing up that I would slip into gaslighting or using toxic positivity on myself quite naturally. I’d think things like: “I should be grateful for…” or “who am I to complain with all that I have”. Even: “Gee susie, first world problems”…. My goodness. Judging, shaming, and dismissive! 

The alternative is freeing. Allowing ourselves to have the human emotion that we’re having feels gentle and like an internal hug of surrender. When I can turn towards myself, and say something like “of course you’re anxious” or “I see how you’re worried” or “wow, you seem stressed”, I don’t compound the issue and am able to process the emotion I have. 

When I can I accept that I’m feeling what I’m feeling without debating it or judging myself for the thoughts I chose, I can move through my challenging emotional experiences much faster. What I used to do was compound the problem: I’d get pissed because I was pissed or get anxious because I’m anxious or smack talk myself because I shouldn’t be worried about whatever I’m worried about? I’d discount myself and tell myself other people have much bigger things to worry about. Toxic toxic toxic positivity. invalidating. gaslighting.  -….drop it. I am human. Allowing myself to be human feels so much better: I am worried. I am anxious. I am stressed. And that’s okay. 

Moving Forward with Acceptance of our Humanity

In conclusion, join me to continue to move aware from codependent and toxic positivity. Let’s stop shaming ourselves for being human and for having a human brain. We are not always going to think positive thoughts. Our brains aren’t designed that way. We are not always going to manage our minds. Further, our loved ones are not always going to think positive thoughts. Our loved ones are not always going to think about situations the way we would think about a situation nor are they going to think about a situation the way we want them to think about a situation.

They are human. We are human. I don’t know why the human brain is wired the way it is though I do know that when we can drop our perfectionist ways and let ourselves and the others in our lives be the humans we are, life can feel a whole lot easier. 

My wish for you this week: be kind to you. Practice accepting how you’re feeling by saying things like “of course” to yourself and to others. Start practicing. You matter to me. 

Links Mentioned:

Podcast Episode with Amy Morin

Codependent Checklist “How Codependent Am I?”

Codependent Podcast

Parenting Teens Class: How Not To Raise Codependent Kids

Midlife Warrior Membership and Book Club