Positive thinking can be very powerful and transformational for those who are lost in the darkness of negativity. But too much of a good thing can be destructive and unhealthy. Toxic positivity refers to those who cling only to positive thoughts while shunning negative situations and people. Wanting to feel happy and good all the time isn't sustainable, and people end up repressing emotions and living a lie to present themselves as beautiful, successful, and happy people.
Whitney Goodman is a popular psychotherapist from the Miami area who has written this book, Toxic Positivity, based on her sessions with clients who felt intense pressure to feel good and be perfect all the time. She has a popular Instagram account, sitwithwhit, where she discusses healthy emotions and mental health.
I discovered the whole self-help and positive thinking field during a dark period of my life and found it very helpful. When you're lost in negative thoughts, nothing seems like it will work out, and it's easy to fall into a negativity spiral that ends in depression and despair. Positive thinking tells you that at some level you are in control of your thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the events of your life, and you can make better choices. We are not prisoners of our past, nor of our negative perceptions, and that can be very liberating.
I devoured self-help books and followed the rule of attraction- you become what you think about. If you can control your thoughts, you can control your life and create anything so the theory goes. But the rule of attraction and admonition to only think positive thoughts just doesn't work all the time. You can overdo it. The world is way too large and complex to control, and no matter how much we might visualize becoming a Supreme Court justice, 99.9999% of us never will be one because unfortunately reality trumps desires much of the time. This is not to say that we shouldn't ever use the techniques of affirmation, visualization, and goal-setting to improve our lives, but before embarking on such a journey we need to get in touch with our values and set realistic, congruent goals.
Ms. Goodman writes that toxic positivity forces us to be in denial about reality to an unhealthy degree. Looking at the discrepancy between our goal and reality, we fall into a shame spiral that doubles down on our efforts while shutting out more and more of reality. We all have negative emotions for a reason, and to suppress them all the time just makes them bottle up dangerously inside of us. (Likewise, with toxic negativity, focusing too much on those emotions leads to disaster as well.)
Our world depends on toxic positivity to function in a lot of ways. Social media has lit a fire under it as we all race to put the best face on our public profiles, humble bragging our way to happiness. The author points out several specific areas where excessive positivity robs us of our chance to feel more human:
1- In work cultures negativity is often discouraged. People who complain or point out critical issues or weaknesses, are seen as not being a "team players", and bosses often surround themselves with yes people while avoiding any bad news that reality might bring. Much is at stake in a job- egos, livelihoods, futures, and the tendency to go along to get along is strong, even when pointing out problems and addressing failures would improve things in the long term. People in work cultures are very careful to put on a "work face" that could be very different from who they are as a person.
2- In the medical field, illness is almost a taboo subject. Unpleasant facts about health are sugar-coated and served with a positive spin. Much of the responsibility for being healthy is put on patient's attitudes, and if they die they didn't fight hard enough. If someone gets sick, they are barraged with a chorus of happy talk and encouragement, mostly because illness- especially serious illness- makes us uncomfortable and we want to insulate ourselves by minimizing the dangers or blaming the victims. People with handicaps are told to try and heroically be just like the rest of us or else get out of the way. Ms. Goodman calls it "inspiration porn" when overcoming disabilities is glamorized over insuring accessibility to the disabled. The onus is on the sick, and it's their fault if they don't get better. Certainly there is a kernel of truth to the fact that our behaviors factor into our health, but viruses, environmental contaminants, the natural aging process, and genetic predispositions are entirely out of our control and no amount of positive thinking can keep us 100% healthy.
3- In some religions, positivity is all about Godliness. God rewards those who are positive, and negativity is from the Devil. With those kind of stakes in theological circles, you can see lots of rules and plenty of shame for the people who can't measure up to the ideals that religion puts out there. Certainly it helps to have positive role models, but religion that only preaches positivity leaves many out in the cold. Those who think the Holocaust, natural disasters, or extreme poverty are part of "God's plan" dishonor both God and those who suffer needlessly in a world we've yet to figure out. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and vice versa.
4- When dealing with racism, the phrase "all lives matter", is the ultimate in gaslighting and denial. Rather than deal with the unpleasant history of race relations, positive platitudes to look past race and treat everyone the same belies the truth of the situation. Racism, sexism, and homophobia all exist today, and need to be acknowledged and addressed. To do otherwise invalidates the feelings of those who have been wronged, gaslighting them into feeling like any problems they encounter are 100% their fault and they just need to smile more and work harder. The author devotes an entire chapter to the discussion of "discrimination with a smile", and it's the most powerful one in the book.
So what do we do about toxic positivity? We know that too much negativity is bad, and now it seems clear that too much positivity is bad for us as well. How do you find that happy medium? First off, you can't pursue happiness, as many relentlessly positive people have discovered. It finds you. Ms. Goodman advises us to instead examine our values and live a value-driven life. Then, when the inevitable collision happens between our goals and values, we will stick with our values, which will ultimately make us much happier than the next shiny thing would have.
The book devotes several chapters on how to avoid toxic positivity and live better. We can support others without reverting to trite platitudes by performing emotional triage that both validates them, connects the both of you, and allows the feelings to flow naturally. Complaining can actually be a healthy thing, as it is cathartic and often informative. Complaints should be factual, directed at the right person, and made with an outcome in mind. (And they should be done sparingly and only when truly necessary). Gratitude can be helpful, but it can't be forced. Toxic positivity sometimes emphasizes being grateful that things aren't worse, but a more balanced approach appreciates the right things while still allowing negative emotions out and validating them.
Negative emotions- fear, disgust, and anger have an important role in our lives. We can't possibly keep up the fake facade of always being happy. We need to embrace those negative emotions too, because they give us important information like what's important, where there is danger, and lessons we need to learn. Experiencing negative emotions honestly builds resilience, because they never last forever. My favorite depiction of this dynamic came in the powerful Pixar movie Inside Out, where the character playing sadness saves the day.
Toxic positivity, or cruel optimism is fake and the cause of much shame and unhappiness in the ironic pursuit of happiness. Life is so much more complicated than that. I applaud the author for this important book, and hope that those who read it will be a bit more gentle and empathetic with themselves and others before rushing to judgement and clinging to affirmations. Listen, learn, feel, validate, live your values, and love others- that's the path to happiness.