A new buzzword has circulated the web since 2020: Toxic Positivity…
The pairing of these two terms can make some people feel prickly and others like someone finally gets it. It’s my nature to empathize with opposing views. I often find myself somewhere in the middle, chewing on it all. As a wellness and fitness coach, I see both perspectives and have lived both.
Perhaps the balanced discussion of toxic positivity in this post will help inform you about where positive thinking helps health and when/where it may hurt it. And per usual, I write this with one big caveat – every person is unique and will find themselves at a different place on the “positive vibes” spectrum.
Take my experience, for example…
I was the classic American, privileged, white girl with a stable family and home growing up. I saw the world through rosy-colored lens and stood at a comfortable arms length from any real suffering. In middle school I ran around proclaiming “Life is good!” shortly before it was coined on popular t-shirts in the 90s. I was 100% Miss Positive Vibes. I didn’t have any reason not to be.
As I grew up and got a little more kicked around by life (you can read about some of those experiences here: Hit by a Car and Pregnancy Loss), I came to better understand the people who met my youthful enthusiasm and can-do attitude with quiet irritation or outward eyerolls. This fresh understanding doesn’t mean that I’m not going to do my best to move forward in life with a hopeful disposition, but it certainly changed how I speak to and empathize with people in the jaws of suffering, grief and loss.
I don’t think our culture is obsessed with people being miserable as some other wellness advocates have suggested. By contrast, I think our culture is addicted to numbing. We find ways to avoid pain or offer quick fixes for it rather than addressing its roots. [Enter: “Toxic positivity,” substance abuse, fear avoidance, spiritual bypassing, grief hierarchies, food addictions, and more.]
A positive disposition is not in and of itself a harmful thing until it prevents us from really sitting with other people in their pain. The very definition of compassion is to suffer together and be motivated to help the suffering person. In other words, compassion compels some people to sit with the person who suffers, acknowledging and hearing their pain, and motivates others to “fix” the suffering. This is where some people in a place of hardship may feel frustrated by futile attempts from loved ones to offer solutions for the painful circumstance. [Hello again, toxic positivity phrases such as “at least you still have…things could be much worse…try to see the bright side…I have a book you should read to help with this,” etc.]
The complaint against positivity is that it’s not okay when it denies acknowledging hard feelings to the exclusion of positive ones. We are whole beings with ALL the feels at one time or another. This is natural. This is life. This is still within the wellness spectrum; to be fully human.
When we only offer up ideas to solve the pain of another, we miss the other, perhaps more genuine, side of compassion: the “suffer together” side. I would personally rephrase this and call it the “I’m here for you and whatever you need” component of compassion. In times of great need, people must feel free to tell you what they need rather than the other way around. We’re all different and thus, our grief and healing needs will be unique too. We can’t slap boilerplate fixes, numbing tools, and “perk up buttercup” messages to all of humanity.
To sum, positivity becomes “toxic” (i.e., not situationally sensitive) when it:
- Diminishes the feelings of another
- Puts another’s grief or hardship into a hierarchy to suggest it’s less difficult than “X”
- Dismisses or minimizes another’s lived experience
- Addresses a complicated situation with a cliché phrase or one-size-fits-all perspective
- Suggests that you’re unwilling to listen due to your own personal discomfort around the subject
Negative emotions can actually inform and grow us emotionally, mentally and spiritually when we work through them. Denying emotions – both negative and positive – can result in distress. As evidenced by one study, suppressing emotional reactions of all kinds can lead to increased heart rate and other physiological symptoms of overwhelm and anxiety. In short, we must authentically confront and work through ALL emotions.
But if toxic positivity is the harmful denial of negative emotions then doesn’t it stand to reason that “toxic negativity” exists too?
Negative feelings left unchecked can spiral and wreak havoc on our physical and mental health. That said, it’s entirely natural to oscillate back and forth between positive and negative feelings. So long as we don’t assign labels like “good” and “bad” to the variety of emotions that we humans experience then we’re making at least some small steps of progress.
The wellness industry has been bashed for selling “positive vibes only” for the last decade or two, and heck – even my site’s tagline can be interpreted as toxic positivity. I picked “start believing you can” as the tagline years ago because I saw (and still see) the way that negative self beliefs limit people when it comes to their health and fitness. This does NOT mean positive thoughts will fix all things or that people in a state of suffering can simply adapt an optimistic attitude and “think” themselves better. What it does mean is that faith in ourselves, even in the face of great adversity, is fundamental to persevering the many highs and lows that life doles out.
So, toxic positivity and toxic negativity…meh. They’re just words. Don’t get too hung up on them. Instead, put your energy into embracing authentic living and sincere compassion. These are some of the best tools for wellness.
Start believing you can.
Yours in health and wellness,