Reprinted with permission from TOXIC POSITIVTY by Whitney Goodman, published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Group, a division of Penguin Random House,LLC. © 2022 Whitney Goodman
Positive thinking is often a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Instead of helping, it leads to emotional suppression, which is destructive to our bodies, minds, relationships, and society. The evidence clearly indicates that emotional suppression is ineffective, taxing, and maladaptive. It leads to worsened mood, negative feelings about social interactions, continued negative emotions, and even diminished positive emotions. Emotional suppression also has significant consequences for our physical health. It doesn’t matter what type of emotion you’re suppressing, positive or negative, the act of suppression leads to physical stress on the body. It has been shown to impact blood pressure and memory and increases the risk for diabetes and heart disease.
In a broader sense, a “good vibes only” culture is toxic for our relationships and society. When we reinforce that some emotions are “bad,” we miss out on the closeness that develops through vulnerability. Sadly, positivity is often used as a weapon to diminish the experience of certain groups. When we say things like “Can’t we all just love each other?” in response to discrimination, we invalidate the real experiences marginalized people endure every day. Toxic positivity in these situations places all the responsibility on the individual instead of on the systems and institutions that make positive thinking an impossible solution.
Common Examples of Toxic Positivity and Why They Hurt
People have sent me thousands of messages about the sayings that invalidate them when they’re struggling. Now that we know it’s all about timing, our audience, and the topic, let’s break down some typical examples of toxic positivity and why they’re particularly unhelpful in a variety of situations. Later in this book, we will talk about what you might choose to do or say instead.
We usually say this because we’re uncomfortable sitting with someone who is emotional. Crying is helpful, normal, and allowed. Telling someone not to cry implies that what they’re doing is wrong and encourages them to suppress their emotions.
“You have so much to be grateful for.”
We can feel upset while also being grateful for what we have, but this feels dismissive and silencing in a moment of struggle.
“Time heals all wounds.”
Time doesn’t heal all wounds. Telling someone this when they are very much not over something can be insensitive and shaming. Only they get to decide when they’ve healed and sometimes we don’t “get over it.”
“Just be happy/positive!”
If it were that easy, we would all be doing it. This simplifies a very challenging and complex emotional process, especially when facing serious mental health challenges.
“At least it’s not ____.”
Anything with “at least” in front of it is minimizing. It’s not helpful to compare suffering. (At least you’re not dead, right? Is that helpful? Didn’t think so.)
“Your attitude is everything.”
This is an oversimplification of our reality. Many studies show that an entire network of factors contributes to someone’s success. Their attitude is an important factor, but it is not everything.
“Be grateful for what you learned.”
This is particularly harmful after someone has experienced a traumatic event. Sadly, I commonly see this used after someone has been abused. Yes, we will eventually learn from our struggles, but it doesn’t mean we have to be grateful for that lesson. Often the price is too high.
“It could be worse.”
True. It could also be better. This statement minimizes and also informs the person that their suffering isn’t justified because it’s not the “worst.”
“Cut all negativity out of your life.”
A life without negativity is a life devoid of learning and growth. If we cut all negative people or experiences out of our life, we will end up alone and emotionally stunted.
“Never give up.”
There are certain situations when giving up is very brave or necessary. It doesn’t always mean that the person was weak or couldn’t handle it. Often it means they were strong enough to know when to walk away.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
This is quite harmful following a traumatic event or a loss. Some things to not happen for a reason, or the reason is not apparent. Telling someone they were attacked, lost a child, or suffered an illness for a “reason” can be extremely confusing and dismissive.
None of these statements give us the opportunity to share or get to a deeper level about what’s going on. None of them make room for emotional expression or connection. They’re nice – and they’re empty.
Photo by Edmond Dantès/Pexels
Whitney Goodman is the radically honest psychotherapist behind the popular Instagram account @sitwithwhit and owner of the Collaborative Counseling Center, a private therapy practice in Miami. She helps individuals and couples heal past wounds and create the life they’ve always wanted. Her work has been featured in dozens of publications and programs, including The New York Times, Teen Vogue, New York magazine, InStyle, and Good Morning America. Goodman lives in Miami with her husband and their two dogs, Luna and Charlie, and her son.