Toxic Positivity

By Shula Levin, LCSW-C

A friend of mine recently experienced a challenging transition in her life and she was bombarded with well-meaning wishes and encouragement: 

“Anything is possible if you just believe!” 

“At least you have your health, it can always be worse!” 

“Everything happens for a reason!” 

While in theory, “good vibes only” sounds like a lovely sentiment and the above phrases are meant to make us feel better, in reality they tend to make us feel invalidated, discredited, and often shamed for our feelings. Phrases such as these have been coined “toxic positivity,” which is defined as “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations” (the psychologygroup.com). While toxic positivity has good intentions, it often oversimplifies complex situations and results in the minimization and discreditation of the uncomfortable and difficult emotions that we all have. Instead of creating a safe space to experience and process feelings such as fear, loss, disappointment, and uncertainty, we are told to push away those feelings. Furthermore, we are left feeling ashamed of ourselves for experiencing these difficult emotions and disappointed in ourselves for not being able to overcome them with a simple “think good and it will be good” mentality.  

The most effective and healthy way to manage challenging situations is to allow ourselves and others the space, time, and empathy to feel and process every emotion, no matter how uncomfortable or challenging it may feel (to ourselves and to those around us).  

The next time you or someone you love is struggling, instead of inundating them with well-meaning, yet invalidating, quotes, try out some of the phrases below: 

  • “It seems like you are really stressed, how can I help you?” 
  • “It’s okay and normal to cry about this, can I bring you a tissue or a drink?” 
  • “I know there’s a lot that can go wrong, is there anything that can go right?” 
  • “Things can get tough, remember I am here for the good and the bad.” 

As our world continues to experience uncertainty and change in numerous ways, it is more critical than ever that we allow ourselves and those around us the opportunity to fully experience and recognize our emotions without feeling minimized or shamed. While a positive mindset can sometimes be useful, check in with yourself and ask yourself if you are encroaching into the unhelpful territory of toxic positivity.  

Remember, the next time your friend casually says “Positive vibes only!” to you, let them know that “All Vibes Allowed!” is your goal for this year.

Shula Levin, LCSW-C is a Clinical Therapist at Jewish Community Services.

JCS is a comprehensive human services organization providing a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or 410-466-9200.

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