What is toxic positivity?

Let’s talk about toxic positivity – especially in the context of engaging with people who are grieving. Toxic positivity is rampant in person and in the online world – and seems to be even more prevalent when the world is more chaotic. 

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the term, you’ve no doubt encountered toxic positivity in your own life. Phrases like “it could be worse, be grateful for what you have!” or “look on the bright side!” or, more recently, “good vibes only!” would all fall into that category.

It’s not to say that things couldn’t be worse – they usually always can be – but it becomes toxic to spew these platitudes at the expense of feeling and expressing difficult emotions.

In other words, it’s not the thoughts or phrases themselves that are damaging, but how and when they’re used. As in all things, context is everything.

Why is it so pervasive?

Toxic positivity has become more mainstream – trendy, even – as we experience upheaval after upheaval on a global scale.
 
Many of us were forced to really look at ourselves – our thoughts and emotions – without our usual distractions, when Covid-19 swept through the entire planet. But facing our emotions is hard, and we are often ill-equipped for the task if we haven’t already been building these skills.
 
Enter: Toxic Positivity. Think of it like a panic move – we don’t know what else to do, so the kneejerk reaction is to try to think or say something uplifting to distract ourselves or others from the actual pain of a lived experience.
 
It’s a natural reaction, but not a helpful one. When someone loses their job, there’s probably a silver lining. But in the moment, that person is likely anxious about the future and distraught about current bills. Telling them there’s a silver lining (while probably true) doesn’t help.
 
When someone loses a loved one, saying that “heaven gained another angel” or “everything happens for a reason” is similarly not helpful, if the gutwrenching pain of their loss is not acknowledged and processed first. If the true intent is to be helpful, the grief needs to be witnessed and expressed in order to heal.

Why toxic positivity is so damaging for those in grief

There is ample research at this point verifying that when we leave emotions unprocessed, adopting a “stiff upper lip”, we do more physical and psychological harm long-term than if we just experience painful emotions as they come up.
 
There’s so much pressure to “put on a positive face” and in the social media age, if it looks like everyone else is doing it, it must mean something is “wrong” with us if we don’t fall in line with the “good vibes only!” talk track. But nothing has gone wrong just because we’re experiencing difficult emotions.
 
The reason toxic positivity has such an amplified effect on the grieving is twofold:
 
1) We think we can’t be ourselves around people who dismiss our emotions; toxic positivity signals to the recipient that the sender is not willing or able to bear witness to their pain. This adds more pressure to the exhausting effort of “acting normal” in public, when our “normal” looks nothing like what people expect. When we feel like we can’t fully be ourselves, we start to avoid people. The sense of isolation people feel after eperiencing a loss is only exacerbated when friends and family can’t hold space for their ongoing pain.
 
2) We risk internalizing toxic positivity. In other words, beause we’ve been conditioned to believe that there should be a timeline for grieving, that we should be “over it” by now, that we should just be grateful for the other good things in our life even if our child or spouse or brother or sister or friend died, when we hear it enough times we start to think it’s probably true. The thoughts become internalized and adopted as true in our own minds, and then when our own bodies tell us that it doesn’t feel true, we assume something is wrong with us. The shame sets in, and we withdraw further at the risk of being “exposed” for not being as happy and positive and we think we’re supposed to be.

What to do when confronted with toxic positivity

Remember that acting positive is not always positive. And experiencing negative emotions does not mean you’re a negative person.

Releasing judgement of the situation, of what’s said, of yourself, is the most crucial thing. Not everyone is going to be equipped to hold space for your pain. When it’s an external source, remember there’s no need to justify or explain yourself, or try to change your experience. In fact, it’s the very struggle of trying to change reality that causes suffering, every time.

When someone throws a “just remember all the good times!” at you, it’s perfectly okay to let them know that you don’t need them to try to fix it or distract you from your pain. You can say “I do remember the good times, and right now I’m still in pain.” When someone tries to distract you by listing all the other things you should be grateful for, you can say “I just need to sit with this for a bit. Will you sit with me?” And when you are alone and you feel a wave of sadness coming and wonder if it will drown you, be still and let it come. Your painful emotions won’t kill you, and you will find in time that you know how to move with the waves without being overtaken.

It’s also normal to feel different things at the same time. As I’m writing this, I just finished watching the livestream of an awards ceremony where we distribute scholarships to young writers graduating from high school, in memory of my brother. I practiced watching my emotions throughout the ceremony – experiencing in succession (but almost simultaneously) the cavern of grief in my chest from my brother’s passing, the anxiety clenching my throat wondering if they’ll pronounce our last name correctly (they didn’t but it’s fine), the sting of tears as they listed my brother’s accomplishments, the heartburst of gratitude that these young men and women shared their own original writing with us, and the warm radiance of hope and anticipation of what they’ll accomplish on their own paths in the future.

Remember that releasing pain and practicing healing thoughts is not a betrayal or abandonment of your loved one. They aren’t in the pain. When in doubt, be still. Observe yourself, try to identify your thoughts, and try to describe your physical experience and emotional response (this is where working with a coach can help, by the way!). Bringing these to the surface gives them the light they need to heal and release in a healthy way.