By presenting an unrealistically perfect world online and in life, you may harm others with your “toxic positivity.”
Can having a perpetually positive outlook negatively impact your life and the lives of others you interact with in person and on social media? When it approaches a level that mental-health experts have termed “toxic positivity,” that very well could happen.
Toxic positivity takes on many different forms, be it the belief that people should maintain a positive outlook no matter how bad the situation they face, or presenting one’s life to the world through the proverbial rose-colored glasses that distort reality.
Understanding this dynamic—particularly for the younger generations more likely to see it via social media—takes on added importance at a time when we are societally grappling with both a pandemic and strained race relations.
As May is Mental Health Month, a pair of experts from the College of Health Professions’ Department of Counseling and Behavioral Health offer their insights into how toxic positivity impacts a wide array of people. It all boils down to balancing a positive outlook with the realities inherent in a world where people experience a full spectrum of emotions.
In other words, it’s about the simple concept that “it’s OK not to be OK.”
Nobody is happy 100 percent of the time. A range of emotions is part of the human experience. –Dr. Kirby Wycoff
Dr. Kirby Wycoff—associate professor and director of the community and trauma counseling program—and Matthew Purinton, a clinical assistant professor in the couple and family therapy program and staff therapist at Council for Relationships, both share thoughts on how best to avoid negating the real emotions of others.
Dr. Wycoff defines toxic positivity as messaging that silences ourselves and/or those around us, particularly when it serves to mask authentic feelings and emotions. Being positive and abiding by an optimistic outlook is a good thing, but when it comes “at a cost of denying, suppressing and silencing one’s emotional experiences or needs, that’s when you’re in trouble,” she says.
When it comes to social media, Dr. Wycoff points to research which demonstrates how reinforcement loops—like those that might be associated with seeing likes, adds or follows on social media posts—can replicate processes in the brain similar to other addictions.
Instead of platitudes, we want to respond with authenticity. –Dr. Wycoff
For example, dopamine—a neurotransmitter that is all about pleasure, reward and motivation—creates reward-seeking patterns, and causes us to want to repeat things that we experience as pleasurable.
“It’s inherently reinforcing to feel like your message is being shared or valued, that ‘what I’m saying matters to people,’” she says. “The problem is that social media users can post things through rose-colored glasses, portraying something not consistent with reality. It can make others feel as if they need to be happy all the time. When they’re not, they start feeling bad about themselves.
“When it looks as if nobody has sad feelings, no one is grieving, no one is having problems, it’s really natural to compare ourselves to that and wonder ‘what’s wrong with me?’ That’s the silencing part. It makes us think we can’t have our feelings.”
Those posting only positive messaging can actually silence themselves as well, because of the lack of authenticity.
“Nobody is happy 100 percent of the time. A range of emotions is part of the human experience,” she notes. “If we lie to ourselves about the harder feelings, it creates shame and becomes problematic.”
Is your “positivity” silencing or invalidating someone else’s experience?
That’s not to say it’s bad to abide by a positive outlook—offering supportive statements, quotes and Biblical passages—but she suggests being mindful of where the other person is at and how your encouragement may be received or interpreted. She offers tips to help avoid being as toxically positive.
“When someone says ‘it will all work out,” it can sound to the person hearing the message like ‘it’s not that big of a deal,’ ‘stop complaining’ or ‘you are overreacting!’” she says. “Instead of platitudes, we want to respond with authenticity. Instead, try things like ‘it’s ok to feel upset about this’ or ‘I can hear that this is really hard right now. How can I support you?’”
By dismissing any feelings of sadness and frustration with a simple “this too shall pass,” you are in effect saying that it makes you uncomfortable when the other person is expressing themselves openly.
“As a society, we don’t always do a great job of acknowledging the full, wide range of emotional experiences. Difficult feelings can make us uncomfortable, so we brush past them or change the topic,” she says. “In doing so, we can unintentionally invalidate those around us. People feel connected when they feel seen and heard. That’s validation.
“Too much of a good thing is problematic. Think of it as chocolate cake. Some of it is good, but force-feeding it—for example, rose-colored glasses all the time and excessive consumption—is not.”
Society hasn’t created space where that can be a safe conversation for a person who could be targeted for going about their daily life. –Matthew Purinton, assistant professor
In many, if not most, cases, the results are unintentional. People may not realize they’re not lifting people up or being supportive. To avoid having that effect, she suggests asking yourself whether your words of encouragement are dismissing someone else’s experiences or emotions. Is your “positivity” silencing or invalidating someone else’s experience?
“In silencing someone, you can make them feel as if they can’t be open and transparent with you,” she notes. “This can result in burying emotions inside, which takes a physical and mental toll. It’s just unhealthy.”
This particularly impacts younger people who look to social media as a distraction, or to be impacted by “influencers” who inform their world view.
“Adolescents and young adults (AYAs) are at a period in life where they’re transitioning into the next chapter of their lives. They are building their sense of self and figuring out who they want to be in the world. It is stressful being away from family, often for the first time in their lives, with increasing academic demands,” she shares. “They may turn to social media for anchoring and validation, but in comparing themselves and their own lives to the idealized and unrealistic influencers on social media, they may end up feeling anxious, depressed or shamed.”
As a clinical supervisor, one important point that I try to get across to students is that part of being a therapist is sitting with uncomfortableness. –Purinton
For his part, assistant professor Matthew Purinton views toxic positivity as a multi-layered phenomenon.
“It means different things to different people. Much of it depends upon experience, and whether you come from a marginalized identity,” he says. “Dominant discourse favors a certain way of life. People who feel comfortable in the dominant-experience view are not really aware that their words could be hurtful to someone from a marginalized population.”
He offers a real-world example.
“A person who inhabits an identity that’s marginalized has to mask their emotions and answer ‘I’m fine’ even if they’re terrified because they heard a police siren behind them on the way to work,” he says. “Society hasn’t created space where that can be a safe conversation for a person who could be targeted for going about their daily life. Does a white colleague struggle to fumble for words for support who is not afraid when they hear those same sirens?”
As a society, we believe we’re healthier than we are. –Purinton
Purinton notes that even asking someone “how are you?” could be an entry path into the world of toxic positivity insofar as the person offering the question doesn’t feel comfortable receiving a true answer, only giving the appearance that they do.
“It’s merely a placeholder to get through the day. That means people will think to themselves ‘just say fine, because they really don’t care how I actually am. They just care that I say fine,’” Purinton suggests. “People have difficulty sitting with uncomfortableness. As a clinical supervisor, one important point that I try to get across to students is that part of being a therapist is sitting with uncomfortableness.
“Well-meaning, caring people say something meaning to be helpful, with the purest motivations, but it can be hurtful. I learned, while working in hospice and especially with grief, that less is more. Being there, giving space to feel those feelings, is far more affirming than anything they can say in that moment. There are some things where there are no words that can help.”
Much of Purinton’s perspective comes from being a member of Disabled Culture, and having seen marginalization and dismissiveness first-hand throughout his lifetime. Drawing a parallel to today, Purinton posits that those suffering from “long COVID” could soon relate.
“Imani Barbarin, a thought leader and advocate in the disability rights movement, has created TikToks about toxic positivity and allyship. Ms. Barbarin conveys that COVID is a mass disabling event and you just don’t go back to normal after this. Disabled People have been trying to tell you this for a long time, that it’s going to take time,” he reports.
“As a society, we believe we’re healthier than we are,” Purinton continues. “You have all these people with a laundry list of issues, and things they have taken for granted all their lives—walking down the street, going to work—have now become more difficult. So, now when friends say, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ that has a psychological cost to the person who says fine. They have to cover over their experience, knowing the truth of what they had to go through that day is uncomfortable to their friend, fearing the weight of their truth might ruin that other person’s day.”
He concurs with Dr. Wycoff about the oft-unintentional nature of toxic positivity, but notes that it approaches the “gaslighting” status if it’s “used in conjunction with implicit bias.”
“When we have political leaders who use coded language, marginalized people have long memories and know exactly what’s being said,” Purinton says. “When people repeat that coded language, they might not know what it means, but marginalized people know exactly what it could lead to.”
It’s all about being present, and listening more than speaking. –Purinton
Using mantras like “just get over it” allows the status quo to continue, papering over real emotions.
“Positivity can be used as a hostile act. They’ll say, ‘Oh I wasn’t being sexist, ableist or racist; I was trying to get them to get past it.’ They think they’re an ally but actually aren’t,” he says. “Others really want to be helpful and do the right thing. They want their friend to be happy, to not suffer. They think they said something to be helpful, but don’t understand that it invalidated their experience, and silenced their voice.
“Toxic positivity can take up space, so that important conversations can’t take place. Best friends can go a lifetime without ever really knowing one another. People whose experience doesn’t fit the accepted narrative, or whose experience society has yet to allow space for, are well acquainted with the weaponization of positivity.”
Purinton also offers tips to help people avoid these interpersonal pitfalls, including avoiding being defensive in the face of any pushback. He also suggests to give them space.
“Don’t feel like you have to fill that space with something you have to tell them. All you have to get across is that you hear that person, that you understand that you don’t understand, but that you’re there to listen. It’s all about being present, and listening more than speaking” he says. “Give them your attention if you’re really interested in being helpful. If you don’t feel you can give that emotional support, realize it’s not just giving Band-Aids or platitudes. That sounds really hard, but it’s better than saying simple things.”