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Book Summary: Toxic Positivity – Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy

Toxic Positivity – Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy (2022) is an eye-opening appraisal of positivity culture in Western society. It outlines the many ways toxic positivity harms individuals and communities, and offers practical suggestions for helping ourselves and others.

Book Summary: Toxic Positivity - Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy

Content Summary

Genres
Who is it for?
What’s in it for me? Discover the problem with positive thinking.
Even with the best of intentions, positivity can become toxic.
When someone is struggling, the last thing they need is pressure to “be positive.”
Toxic positivity is deeply ingrained in US society.
Forcing people to be positive actually makes them unhappy.
Feel your feelings, practice radical acceptance, and stop chasing happiness.
To dismantle oppressive societal structures, we need to challenge the culture of toxic positivity.
Final summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Overview
Read an Excerpt
Review

Genres

Personal Growth, Psychology, Inspiration, Motivation, Non-fiction, Self Help, Health, Mental Health, Personal Development, Adult, Social Science, Social Work, Happiness, Positive psychology, Self-actualization (Psychology), Self-Improvement

Who is it for?

  • Happiness-seekers
  • People who want to support their loved ones in difficult times
  • Anyone who cringes at expressions like “good vibes” and “just think positive”

What’s in it for me? Discover the problem with positive thinking.

“Think positive!” If only it were that simple. If only positive thinking could banish all negative emotions and lead to a life of guaranteed success and happiness. In the US, that’s the lie that many people have come to believe. And, ironically, the constant pressure to be positive is actually making us feel even worse.

These summaries reveal the truth about toxic positivity – and offer an antidote. They present practical ways for people to support each other and live more fulfilling lives, free from the toxic influence of inauthentic positivity.

In these summaries, you’ll learn

  • the surprising roots of the positive thinking movement in the US;
  • the connection between toxic positivity and societal inequality; and
  • what to say to someone who’s struggling.

Even with the best of intentions, positivity can become toxic.

Imagine this. You’ve just found out that you’ve lost your job. You’re upset – freaking out, even – and have no idea what to do next.

Maybe a chat with a friend will make you feel better. You want support and validation for the way you’re feeling. Your friend will know just what to say. So you tell them – “I’ve lost my job.” And what does your friend say? “Well, it could be worse. And at least you’ll have lots of spare time now. Think of it as a learning experience!”

Do you feel better now? Didn’t think so.

Your friend’s response is a classic example of toxic positivity. Unfortunately, these conversations happen all the time. You share your problem, and someone tells you to look on the bright side.

They mean well – they really do. But their reaction probably leaves you feeling misunderstood and distant from the other person. You might even feel worse than before. Toxic positivity tends to have this kind of effect. After all, it’s called “toxic” for a reason.

The author, Whitney Goodman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist on a crusade against toxic positivity. In her mid-twenties, she realized she was exhausted from pretending to be happy all the time. And as a therapist, she soon discovered that telling her clients to focus on positive thinking and emotions was totally ineffective.

What’s going on, she wondered? Why can’t we just be honest about how we’re feeling? And what if certain kinds of positivity are actually harmful?

By the way, Goodman is not the first person to challenge the idea that all positivity is, well, positive.

Academics and researchers like bell hooks and Barbara Ehrenreich have already criticized the pursuit of happiness and positivity. They’ve pointed out just how damaging these attitudes can be, both for individuals and marginalized communities.

In fact, criticism of toxic positivity dates right back to the beginning of the problem. The American psychologist William James was sounding alarm bells way back in the nineteenth century. So, toxic positivity and its critics are nothing new.

It’s time we took the problem seriously. We need to acknowledge that the insistence on being positive can be harmful in a myriad of ways – particularly for vulnerable people. In other words, it’s time to stop telling people to “look on the bright side.” Maybe there is no bright side! Or maybe the person suffering from a chronic illness isn’t in the mood for chirpy clichés.

When someone is struggling, the last thing they need is pressure to “be positive.”

The very notion that positivity can be toxic makes people uncomfortable. Whenever Goodman makes online posts that criticize the “good vibes only” culture, her inbox is filled with incredulous – and sometimes angry – messages. How on earth could positivity be toxic? Maybe you’re thinking the same thing . . . which is totally normal, by the way.

Before we go any further, let’s get a couple of things straight. Of course positivity can be helpful. And of course it’s not inherently toxic. Goodman’s point is that it can become toxic, even when someone has the best intentions.

When your friend reacted to the news of your job loss by saying, “It could be worse,” obviously they were trying to be helpful. It was a conventional, well-intended response.

And intent is important, of course. No one would argue with that! But while intent matters, impact matters even more.

This is especially true when people are dealing with serious, life-changing problems. Heartbreak, illness, death . . . . How should we react when someone we know is going through a really difficult time?

Well, here’s what not to say: “Try to be grateful for what you have.” Or, “Everything happens for a reason.”

These are the kinds of expressions that we often use in an attempt to be encouraging and comforting. They’re the expressions that the Fernandez family often heard from people they knew, in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy they went through.

The Fernandez family were clients of Goodman. One day, they came to her for an emergency therapy session. Their 23-year-old son had just died in a boating accident.

Everyone in the family was in shock; there was so much pain. They told Goodman that they’d gone to the local temple where they sometimes worshiped, looking for support.

At the temple, members of the congregation tried their best to be supportive. They told the Fernandez family that their son’s death was “part of God’s plan.” Their son was “in a better place.” “Everything happens for a reason.”

These words were well-intentioned, but far from helpful. Instead, everyone in the family was left feeling confused, like they were somehow doing grief wrong. But then, just think about it for a moment. When someone’s child suddenly dies, how can they possibly be expected to put a positive spin on the situation?

Of course, a tragic, premature death of a loved one is one of the hardest situations that anyone can face. It should be obvious that platitudes feel inadequate, and that there’s no place for forced positivity.

This kind of positivity is just as unhelpful and ineffective in other situations: a woman struggling with infertility, a man dealing with chronic illness, someone coming to terms with their divorce. Please don’t tell any of these people that “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s not going to make them feel any better!

You’re probably wondering what the right response is. And it’s true – it’s really hard to know what to say sometimes. There’s no perfect script, but Goodman has a few suggestions. When someone tells you about their problem, listen – really listen. Acknowledge their pain. You can say, “That is so hard,” or “I’m sorry you’re going through this.”

You might also want to offer practical support, and check in on them regularly. Basically, just be there for them. You can even say, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you.”

That’s what the Fernandez family wanted to hear – something more authentic and helpful than empty positivity.

Toxic positivity is deeply ingrained in US society.

OK, so now we’re getting a better understanding of what toxic positivity means, and how to avoid it. But where does it come from? Why do we instinctively tell each other – and ourselves – to “think positive?”

In the US, being pro-positivity feels natural because it’s such an integral part of the culture. People have to love their jobs, love their lives, and be grateful for everything. The media celebrates people who have made the best of a difficult situation, like the guy who keeps smiling despite his illness or disability. Struggles are “opportunities,” right?

It’s hard to think otherwise because people are taught to think like this from an early age. A really early age. There are positive babies – and negative babies. You’ll hear adults say, “Such a happy baby!” or “They never stopped crying.”

So right from the beginning, the pressure to be positive is relentless. Children are told not to complain, or not to be a “negative Nancy.” School is “fun,” a place where everyone should “be happy.”

Growing up like this, people learn that negativity has to be avoided or repressed. Positivity is the only option – the key to happiness.

It wasn’t always like this. It isn’t human nature to think positively about everything. If anything, it’s the opposite. Humans are naturally pretty negative. It’s a product of evolution – a survival mechanism. Our brains are programmed to constantly search for threats. Negativity literally keeps us alive!

So, if thinking positively doesn’t come naturally, it must be cultural. Where did it all begin?

Let’s go back to the nineteenth century, when the United States was the “New World.” Most of the new settlers were Calvinists. They believed that humans were essentially evil sinners. Life was about working hard and hoping that God would save you from your sins – even though it was predetermined who would be saved.

There wasn’t much in the way of fun or hope in Calvinist society. The standard way of thinking was extremely negative. Too negative, the settlers realized. The “New World” had a branding problem.

Then, along comes a man named Phineas Quimby. He’s a clockmaker with an interest in hypnotism. He’s also a mentalist and a mesmerist – not exactly what you would call a scientifically minded person. According to him, physical illness starts in the mind and is caused by mistaken beliefs. To cure your illness, simply change your thoughts. Think positive!

Quimby became the father of the “New Thought” movement, which quickly became popular. Unsurprisingly, people loved the idea that they could gain some control over their lives simply through positive thoughts and beliefs. It was such a refreshing change from the pessimistic outlook of the Calvinists.

Over the years, the New Thought movement became even more influential. Belief in the power of positive thinking spread to the medical community and psychologists. Then, in the 1930s, it became part of the recipe for power and success. According to books like Think and Grow Rich, you have to think positively to be successful.

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and positive thinking has become a multibillion-dollar industry – and a fundamental part of Western culture. Toxic positivity is everywhere. And according to Goodman, not only is it not making us happy, but it’s actually making many of us miserable.

Forcing people to be positive actually makes them unhappy.

Americans spend more time, energy, and money on the pursuit of happiness than any other country, and yet – you guessed it. It makes no difference. The obsession with happiness and positivity isn’t working. The results of the General Social Survey show that there has been no change to levels of happiness in the US since 1972.

Living in a society of toxic positivity is also pretty exhausting. In the face of negative emotions and difficult situations that are a natural part of life, it’s so hard to stay positive all the time. Goodman often sees clients who are struggling to make sense of this conflict.

A woman named Tory is one of them. She reads self-help books obsessively. She makes daily gratitude lists. Her mirror is covered with Post-it notes that tell her how amazing she is. Her goal in therapy is “happiness.”

Tory thinks she should be happy. Her positive practices should be working. But they’re not. Despite her best efforts, she often feels sad or stressed – and then guilty. What is she doing wrong? Why can’t she be happy all the time? Tory’s pursuit of happiness has left her feeling burnt out. She even tells Goodman that she feels like a failure.

When positivity is forced on people, they often get stuck in what Goodman calls a “shame spiral.” It’s as unpleasant as it sounds. Basically, you feel sad and get told to “look on the bright side,” or something along those lines. Or maybe you tell yourself to be more positive. Either way, the result is that you then feel guilty for feeling sad.

You may also try to repress your sadness – which is a truly terrible idea, by the way. It takes a toll on your mood and your health: scientific studies show that emotional suppression can cause stress. So, really, it’s OK to feel sad sometimes. It’s actually better for you.

Obviously, we want to avoid emotional burnout, shame spirals, and health problems. We’ve now seen just how toxic positivity can be. But what’s the alternative? How do we deal with negative emotions?

We’ve already looked at a few ways to help people, like listening carefully and acknowledging that a situation is difficult. But let’s really break it down. According to Goodman, supporting others has four essential ingredients – curiosity, understanding, validation, and empathy. These are all great qualities. But what do they mean in practical terms? Well, here’s how to respond to a friend who’s telling you about their problem.

Start by showing curiosity and interest. Listen actively and ask open-ended questions, like “Can you tell me more about that?” Remember that nonverbal cues, like nodding and eye contact, are important too. You want your friend to feel like they have your full attention.

As you listen, try to understand why they feel this way. This allows you to validate their experience. That doesn’t mean agreeing, by the way. It just means acknowledging that something is possible. You might tell your friend, “I get why you’d react like that.”

Once you’ve done all this – shown curiosity, understood, and validated your friend’s feelings – you’ve also demonstrated empathy. You’ve developed a more compassionate perspective, and your friend feels supported.

This is the goal. This is the alternative to toxic positivity.

Feel your feelings, practice radical acceptance, and stop chasing happiness.

So, now you may be wondering, “What about me?” You know how to support others without resorting to toxic positivity – but what about your own problems, your own difficult emotions?

You’ll often experience negative emotions in your life because . . . well, because you’re human. Avoidance doesn’t work. We’ve also seen how damaging suppression can be, so that’s not an option either.

Instead, try feeling the emotion. Feel your feelings.

Sometimes, when Goodman gives this advice to her clients, they find it difficult at first. What does it mean, exactly, to “feel your feelings?”

Basically, you have to let yourself experience them fully, from beginning to end. Allow a feeling to rise, peak, and then fall. Your body needs to go through the whole cycle in order to experience and process an emotion.

So, when you become aware of a difficult feeling, don’t run from it. Allow yourself to notice it, recognize it. Label the emotion, if you can. Give it a name. Is it anxiety? Stress? Whatever it is, again, don’t run – stick with it!

The next step is to try experiencing the emotion in your body. There are many ways to do this. Goodman suggests deep breaths, crying, talking, creative expression, physical exercise, or even just sitting with the emotion. Sit with it. Let it peak, then pass. This is a useful skill you can develop with practice.

Another skill you can work on is “radical acceptance.” According to Goodman, radical acceptance is the antidote to toxic positivity. Basically, it involves accepting the current situation as it is – and accepting that you can’t change it. You might not like it, but you can still accept it.

When you practice radical acceptance and “feel your feelings,” you accept reality. You’re no longer in denial or desperately trying to sugarcoat things. While it may feel counterintuitive at first, it’s actually a much better way to live.

Is Goodman’s advice going to make you happy? That’s what you really want to know, isn’t it? Well, perhaps it’s time to give up on the quest for happiness, and focus on something else – something more realistic and less likely to result in disappointment.

Instead of living a happiness-driven life, Goodman suggests that we should aim to live a value-driven life. Decide what’s important to you, and live in accordance with your own personal values – whatever they may be. People who have solid values can judge a situation by their standards. They don’t have to rely on a one-size-fits-all optimism and will ultimately lead a more fulfilling life.

To dismantle oppressive societal structures, we need to challenge the culture of toxic positivity.

We’ve seen how the culture of toxic positivity impacts people – how it leads to feelings of guilt, frustration, and emotional burnout.

But it’s not just a problem for the individual. Toxic positivity is also linked with societal issues in the US, like discrimination and inequality.

You might find it challenging to understand at first – Goodman certainly did. But as she started researching these issues, she was shocked by just how powerful and pervasive toxic positivity really was. It runs deep, and it contributes to the suffering experienced by marginalized communities every day.

Let’s take racial inequality as an example. In positivity culture, people of color are not supposed to be too angry, negative, or abrasive. We’re also expected to celebrate positive stereotypes, like the “strong Black woman.” That might not sound like a bad thing – but maybe we should be questioning why Black women have to be strong in the first place. Why does society expect this?

Also, we can see something similar happening with the treatment of immigrants. They’re expected to be grateful; they’re discouraged from complaining. If immigrants aren’t happy, society says they should “go back to where they came from.” Everyone is supposed to just get along and love each other, and there’s no room for negativity.

Do you see what’s happening here? Positivity is being used to “keep the peace.” And when you look closer, you see that it’s actually upholding oppressive structures and discouraging change. People with legitimate feelings and problems are being silenced.

When a person of color or an immigrant expresses their unhappiness, it’s as if they somehow threaten other people’s happiness – a right that must be protected at all costs, apparently. But maybe that person is right to complain, to make some noise. After all, negativity and anger are some of the most effective forces for societal change.

Clearly, positivity and the pursuit of happiness are convenient tools for keeping people quiet and submissive. It’s a huge problem. And once you start to look out for it, you see it everywhere.

It’s the impossible ideal of the woman who “has it all” – who’s juggling a perfect family and career success while making it look effortless. It’s the unfair expectation that LGBTQIA+ individuals embrace their identities happily and wholeheartedly, without any doubts. It’s the unrealistic idea that we should all love our bodies unconditionally.

And these are just a few examples. There are many, many more.

To sum up, toxic positivity silences vulnerable and marginalized people while keeping oppressive structures in place. So instead of telling people to love themselves, to be grateful and happy, we need to start listening to them. Then, and only then, can we create real change.

Final Summary

The key message in these summaries is that:

The pressure to “think positive” is harmful because it leads to feelings of guilt and emotional repression. The culture of toxic positivity has a particularly negative effect on marginalized communities, as it upholds oppressive systems. We need to stop forcing positivity – and instead start recognizing that occasional negativity is an inevitable part of the human experience.

Actionable advice: Choose your positive affirmations carefully.

This may surprise you, but Goodman isn’t against the use of positive affirmations. However, to be effective, affirmations have to be true – or at least achievable. For example, saying “I love my body” is unlikely to work if you actually feel the opposite way. So instead, try a more flexible affirmation like “I can learn to love my body.”

About the author

Whitney Goodman is a licensed psychotherapist who runs a private therapy practice in Miami. Her popular Instagram account @sitwithwhit has nearly half a million followers. Toxic Positivity is her first book.

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.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction: You deserve more than just good vibes
  • What is toxic positivity?
  • Why positivity doesn’t always work
  • When positivity doesn’t help
  • Stop shaming yourself
  • How to process an emotion
  • How to complain effectively
  • How to support someone
  • Discrimination with a smile
  • How to find fulfillment in a difficult world
  • Final note: Reminders about being human.

Overview

A powerful guide to owning our emotions—even the difficult ones—in order to show up authentically in the world, from the popular therapist behind the Instagram account @sitwithwhit.

Every day, we’re bombarded with pressure to be positive. From “good vibes only” and “life is good” memes, to endless advice, to “look on the bright side,” we’re constantly told that the key to happiness is silencing negativity wherever it crops up, in ourselves and in others. Even when faced with illness, loss, breakups, and other challenges, there’s little space for talking about our real feelings—and processing them so that we can feel better and move forward.

But if all this positivity is the answer, why are so many of us anxious, depressed, and burned out?

In this refreshingly honest guide, sought-after therapist Whitney Goodman shares the latest research along with everyday examples and client stories that reveal how damaging toxic positivity is to ourselves and our relationships, and presents simple ways to experience and work through difficult emotions. The result is more authenticity, connection, and growth—and ultimately, a path to showing up as you truly are.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

What Is Toxic Positivity?

Imagine that you just lost your job. You’re in full panic mode. Your mind is racing, and you have no idea what you’re going to do next.

You decide to share this with a friend. They glance your way and smile. It looks like they are keying up to tell you something big. Could this be the validation you need right now? Maybe they know of a great job opportunity? You watch them fidget as they pull from the depths of their inner wisdom and say, “At least you have all this time off now! It could be so much worse. Think about how much you’re going to learn from this.”

Toxic positivity has officially entered the building.

You freeze and think, Are they even listening to me? Am I seriously supposed to be grateful that I just lost my job?

You’re not sure where to go from here. You don’t feel grateful, so how in the world are you supposed to respond? You were already stressed out, and now this conversation leaves you feeling totally misunderstood. So, you put aside your feelings and say, “Yeah, thanks.”

Now you’re not only jobless, but you also feel distant from your friend and ashamed that you can’t just look on the bright side.

They’re Just Trying to Help

Listen, this person probably has good intentions. What they said isn’t false-you WILL have more time off now, and of course things could (always) be worse, and yes, you’ll likely learn some lessons from the experience.

The problem is, you’re not there yet. You’re still worried and upset. You’re scared. Your body and mind are in full crisis mode, and no platitude is going to change that. What you really need is support and space to sort through your feelings.

Toxic positivity is the advice we might technically want to integrate but are incapable of processing at the moment. Instead, it typically leaves us feeling silenced, judged, and misunderstood.

Sound familiar?

But Isn’t Positivity Always a Good Thing?

You’ve probably experienced hundreds of interactions like this. You might be wondering: How can positivity possibly be toxic? That’s a pretty strong word. Is it really that bad?

Honestly, positivity is such an integral part of our culture that it feels scary to challenge it. As I continue to research and write about positive thinking, I’m constantly worried about coming across as “negative” while discussing this topic. Every time I try to push back against the good vibes only culture, there are inevitably those people who are angry, shocked, and confused. Comments and messages flood my in-box: “How could positivity be toxic?! You’ve officially lost your mind.”

I get it. It’s a testament to our total devotion to positivity culture. We’ve been told that it’s the key to happiness-and doctors, therapists, and leaders prescribe it regularly. It makes sense that you might question anyone who tells you otherwise. But behind closed doors, my clients, friends, and family have been telling me for years how much they despise the constant pressure to put a positive spin on everything. They’re feeling disconnected from their peers who tell them “It’ll all be OK” and to “Look on the bright side.” They know this isn’t working, and they’re desperate for another way.

So before we get started, let’s clear something up: positivity isn’t all bad.

When used correctly, it’s great. Experts agree that positive feelings like gratitude, contentment, optimism, and self-confidence can lengthen our lives and improve our health. Many of these claims are exaggerated, but there is value in positive thinking. People who report having more positive feelings are more likely to have a rich social life, to be more active, and to engage in more health-promoting behaviors. I think we can all agree that it is healthy to feel “positive” when it comes from a genuine place.

But somewhere along the way, we constructed this idea that being a “positive person” means you’re a robot who has to see the good in literally everything. We force positivity on ourselves because society tells us to, and anything less is a personal failure. Negativity is seen as the enemy, and we chastise ourselves and the people around us when they succumb to it. If you’re not positive, you’re simply not trying hard enough. If you’re not positive, you’re a drag to be around.

Healthy positivity means making space for both reality and hope. Toxic positivity denies an emotion and forces us to suppress it. When we use toxic positivity, we are telling ourselves and others that this emotion shouldn’t exist, it’s wrong, and if we try just a little bit harder, we can eliminate it entirely.

I know people are tired of positivity being forced on them in moments of struggle, but confronting it and questioning it publicly feels like we are going up against something so massive and pervasive.

Let’s do it anyway.

Shame Disguised as Positivity

So you lost your job, and your friend just told you that you shouldn’t be upset. The moment the words “At least . . .” left their mouth, the conversation was over. There was no more space for your emotions or your processing. You were being pulled into the land of positivity whether you were ready or not. So you shut down and tried to figure out how the heck you could become more grateful and positive without inconveniencing anyone with your stress, worry, or shame.

This seemingly minor interaction causes you to start suppressing your feelings about the situation, and you act like nothing’s wrong. You don’t feel great; you’re still sad and jobless. But whenever an emotion comes up, you shut it down. You decide to fake it ’til you make it-except it isn’t working. Your sleep is getting worse; you don’t want to be around people because then you have to be fake, and you’re too nervous to ask anyone for advice. Instead of dealing, you plaster positive quotes on your Instagram feed and hope that your mood will turn around.

This is how we enter the shame spiral of toxic positivity. We get mad at ourselves for having a feeling, tell ourselves that we shouldn’t be feeling it, and then get mad again when a couple of “just smile” platitudes don’t bring us endless positivity. It’s a never-ending, soul-sucking spiral, and I want to help you get out of it.

Toxic Positivity Is Denial

As a therapist, I spend my day listening to people talk about their emotions and experiences. This type of work gives me a view of the human experience that you really can’t get anywhere else. Most sessions revolve around the word should. People feel like they should be happier or that something they’re doing is preventing them from being happy, so they jump right back into that positivity shame spiral. In these cases, I help people examine the should. Where did they learn that? Is it true? Is it based on fact? Can they look at the situation in a different, more nuanced way? Others, like Dave, use positivity to deny that difficult emotions even exist.

Dave sits across from me on a tiny sofa, beaming. He’s sharing about how great he feels and his wonderful family. He reports that he’s genuinely happy; all he needs to do is try a little bit harder. This conversation would feel normal and quite promising in any other context, except for the fact that Dave and I are meeting in a residential mental health facility where he has been admitted until further notice. He’s here because he likes to drink, and some people in his life think it’s getting out of control. Dave tells me he likes to drink because he is a happy and social guy. He doesn’t see any problem with it and thinks everyone around him is kind of a buzzkill. Don’t all happy and social guys drink this much?

Dave is always smiling. Watching him bounce around the clinic among the more morose, pensive, and outwardly suffering patients is confusing and maybe even disturbing at times. He loves to use positive thinking as a coping skill and is really proud of his ability to always appear happy. But his drinking, his inability to experience emotions, and his lack of close relationships tell me a completely different story. In actuality, his positive attitude has become a huge issue in our sessions and in his recovery.

Because of his “everything’s great!” approach to life, Dave struggles with emotional expression. This isn’t as uncommon as you may think. He can’t access any feelings that aren’t positive and tends to shut down whenever things get too heavy. I can see that he drinks to deal with these feelings, but Dave is having trouble with this connection. Because of this, we really can’t process anything from his past or plan for future issues with his mental health. Accepting that his drinking is problematic isn’t even on the table. He believes any struggle will work itself out and there’s nothing a positive attitude can’t fix. Positive thinking has become Dave’s shield, and until he learns to put it down, change will be nearly impossible.

My clients who live the most fulfilling lives are those who can experience challenging emotions. They don’t just slap on a smile. They work through any shame that comes with the struggle to get to the other side. When we know that our emotions are meant to be experienced and that they’re not something we need to run from, it makes it easier to move into a place of optimism because we know that we can handle whatever comes our way.

At its core, toxic positivity is both well-intentioned and dismissive. We often use it to:

end the conversation.

tell someone why they shouldn’t be feeling what they’re feeling.

convince people they can be happy all the time (if they try hard enough).

always appear positive and carefree.

deny or avoid our current situation.

avoid taking responsibility.

attempt to make people feel better.

Authenticity Matters

I believe that we use platitudes because we want to be helpful. I don’t think anyone actually means to hurt someone with positive phrases. That’s why the concept of toxic positivity can be so triggering. It makes us wonder: How can I be toxic when I’m just trying to help?

Being genuine and authentic in moments of crisis or pain is important. It’s how we show up for each other and demonstrate that we’re listening and we get it. You’re not going to be able to do this for everyone all the time, but you can do it when it matters. When we show up authentically, rather than using toxic positivity, we’re validating that what the other person is going through is real, empathizing, and not sugarcoating or denying their experience. You may not totally agree with how they’re handling it or their interpretation of the situation, but you’re authentically trying to connect and show up for them. You’re saying that you hear them by sitting with them and allowing them to show up fully (in a safe way that doesn’t violate your boundaries, of course).

Remember the friend who was trying to comfort you when you lost your job? They used toxic positivity when they said, “At least you have all this time off now! It could be so much worse. Think about how much you’re going to learn from this.” Of course they weren’t trying to hurt you. The language of positivity isn’t something we just make up on the spot. It’s ingrained in us. We’ve been conditioned to repeat these phrases over and over and have heard other people using them since we were kids. We believe positivity will eventually work (even if we think it’s not helping us). It’s almost as if we’re afraid to admit it’s not working because we have been told so many times that it should. Your friend isn’t toxic or a bad person; they’re just repeating what they’ve been told to say by countless self-help books, social media affirmations, friends, and family members.

The thing is, regardless of intention, language matters. It impacts how we see ourselves and the world. The words we choose change our brains and profoundly impact how we relate to others. If we want to communicate effectively and make other people feel supported, we must first understand the world they live in. When we use toxic positivity, we’re more focused on saying the thing we’ve been told to say than genuinely listening to, connecting with, and learning about the person in distress.

Most positivity lingo lacks nuance, compassion, and curiosity. It comes in the form of blanket statements that tell someone how to feel and that the feeling they’re currently having is wrong. These two things are immediate clues that positivity isn’t inherently helpful. If you genuinely want to help someone, I’m sure you don’t want them to feel bad. Platitudes like this can become especially toxic when someone is sharing something vulnerable, talking about their emotions, or trying to explain a hardship or struggle.

When it comes to using positive language or positivity, the impact depends on your timing, your audience, and the topic being discussed.

Timing

We often rush into positivity because we genuinely want people to feel better. We hope that if we say just the right thing, their pain will go away. We also selfishly hope it works so we can move away from a difficult topic and save ourselves the pain of being with someone who is struggling. I think we can all admit that sitting with someone who is crying, distressed, or upset can be hard. You just want to make it all better.

Unfortunately, moving too quickly can lead to disappointment on all fronts. It may cause the person we’re comforting to feel silenced and ashamed, and it often leaves us feeling ineffective and disconnected.

Timing is everything. Before encouraging someone to look on the bright side, it’s important to remember:

Time doesn’t heal all wounds. People process things at different speeds, and they get to decide where they are in their healing process.

When experiencing distress, everyone reacts differently. Unless their reaction is life-threatening or directly harmful to you or someone who needs protection (like a child or the elderly), it’s OK to let someone experience their feelings. You don’t have to fix it.

People often need to accept the reality of a situation before moving forward.

Not all situations have a silver lining or a positive spin. Some things are just really, really hard, and that’s OK.

Watching people in pain is very difficult. Have compassion for yourself, too.

Try to avoid using a positive platitude:

When someone is crying about something or clearly in the midst of experiencing a difficult emotion.

Immediately after an event happens (like right after someone gets fired from their job).

While at a funeral or when someone is dying.

Review

“More than a self-help book, this is a society-help book. It’s ambitious but based on the simple idea of being, as Goodman describes herself, ‘radically honest’ with each other. And it’s about not pushing don’t-worry-be-happy talk on everyone around you, including yourself. Isn’t that something to (genuinely) smile about?” – Kimberly Harrington, The Washington Post

“I‘ll be forever changed by Toxic Positivity—before offering words of validation, I will choose what I say wisely. Whitney Goodman’s book unlocks the difference between being helpful and harmful. This trailblazing book will help you transform your perspective about positivity.“ – Nedra Glover Tawwab, bestselling author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace

“Sorely needed….Whitney Goodman elegantly weaves together her personal and clinical experience, academic research and practical advice to offer us a refreshing antidote to the seemingly innocuous but ultimately harmful message of ‘good vibes only.’” – Iris McAlpin, trauma professional

“Whitney Goodman’s Toxic Positivity is a much-needed breath of fresh air in the self-help space. It’s the validation we’ve all been needing in order to fully understand the normal challenges that accompany our lives.” – Todd Baratz, LMHC, psychotherapist

“Living an authentic life means facing hard times and growing through them, not pretending things are perfect when they’re not. This book provides a much-needed roadmap for being honest with ourselves and others in order to be truly present in our own lives and grow as a whole person.” – Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD, host of The Psychology Podcast and author of Transcend

“Finally a book that explains exactly why ‘positivity at all costs’ backfires, and teaches us how to process our pain instead of pretending it doesn’t exist. Toxic Positivity is the antidote to superficial pop-psychology inspo, illustrating the limits of positive thoughts and gratitude, encouraging us to embrace life’s ups and downs, and giving us more realistic and helpful ways to implement ‘positivity.’ Funny isn’t it? Stop chasing happiness and you may end up a little …happier.” – Caroline Dooner, author of The F*ck It Diet and Tired as F*ck

“If you’ve ever felt like something is wrong with you because you’re having a hard time and can’t seem to just get over it, this book will help you understand why. Moreover, Toxic Positivity teaches you what to do when witnessing the struggles of others — it will help you to be a better friend, parent, colleague, or partner when someone you love is having a difficult time. This book is the counterbalance to a world that preaches look on the bright side whenever life gets tough.” – Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, relationship expert and author of I Want This to Work

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