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Everyday Lifestyle

Turning Toxic Positivity Into Actionable Empathy

Every so often life just sucks. Many things can change, be disrupted, hurt and weigh heavy. It’s typical to experience highs and lows, happiness and sadness, progress and regression we all require a little help from time to time but navigating whatever it is that’s causing us difficulty can’t always be soothed with positive vibes.

Positivity does perform a meaningful role in our thinking and routine interactions, having hope, for example, is integral to being able to keep going and focus on better times, but we need to be mindful of the elements of toxicity that can develop.

Toxic positivity takes positive thinking to an overgeneralized extreme. This attitude doesn’t just stress the importance of optimism, it minimizes and denies any trace of human emotions that aren’t strictly happy or positive. | Very Well Mind — What Is Toxic Positivity?

A young man and woman chat in a cafe over coffee on a sunny day.
photo via Matthew Henry

Positive thinking is useful, but it comes with added pressure. It places the burden of getting through something back on the shoulders of those already struggling. Communicating to someone that it could be worse or that so-and-so is in a more dire situation, to count blessings or just think positively does not lead to any kind of solution. In fact, it possibly adds a level of guilt around feeling overwhelmed, anxious, stressed or depressed, etc.

Most people who use generic (toxic) positivity are well-meaning and want to help; I resorted to it in the past myself, but all this does is tell someone to be happy when they’re already in difficulty or troubled. Some people may not know you well enough or be unsure about what is appropriate and that’s okay but you can accomplish a whole lot of good with, I don’t really know what to say but I stand with you or even you‘re going through so much, but please don’t give up. You can be someone’s cheerleader by reminding them that they matter and turn this empathy into something actionable. Saying, it could be worse is a whole different vibe to I‘m sorry you‘re experiencing this. What will help you work through it? One makes it clear your struggles are seen, while the other suppresses them. One of the most beneficial ways to help is to listen and let people talk things through.

An infographic about mindfulness and turning toxic positivity into actionable empathy. Instead of telling someone to stop being so negative, try letting them know you can see that something is problematic for them and asking if they want to talk about it. Instead of telling someone that things will get better, try asking how you can support them. Instead of telling someone to just focus on the positives, try telling asking if there is anything you can do to makes things easier. Instead of telling someone it could be worse and not to worry so much, try telling them that you can see they are struggling and ask how you can help.

Avoiding our own negative thoughts or emotions and pretending to be upbeat is also toxic and potentially self-sabotaging. It doesn’t present an opportunity for us to improve things or obtain support when we need it there’s not much room for working through something effectively. Pushing all negativity aside can be a coping mechanism but eventually, whatever it is we’re attempting to recover from or feel better about, has to be addressed. Toxic positivity, essentially, becomes an avoidance tactic that overlooks the benefits that talking about something and putting things in place to deal with our hardships can bring.

Accepting difficult emotions helps with coping and with decreasing the intensity of those emotions.¹ Think about how good it feels when you can finally talk about how hard your day was with your partner, parent, or friend. Getting things off your chest, including negative things, is like lifting a weight from your shoulders, even if it’s more difficult than pretending everything is fine. | Toxic Positivity: Don’t Always Look On The Bright Side — Psychology Today

Being positive is valuable, but all the good it can produce will be undone if its application is insincere, it has no acknowledgement of what’s being faced or it encourages silence. Nobody expects other people to resolve their problems for them but talking about our emotions and difficulties with trusted individuals can improve things significantly. Sharing something with a family member, friend, partner or therapist can often generate ideas and motivation to work through a problem. It can remind us we’re on the right track and help release what’s being held sometimes that’s all we need to feel less burdened.

Two women sitting on a couch having a conversation.
photo via AllGo

From my own experiences, mindfulness is far more powerful at holding space and providing support, especially when replacing generic (toxic) positivity with awareness, recognition and kindness. Instead of advising someone to stop being so negative, mindfulness says, “I can see this is problematic for you. Do you want to talk about it? It doesn’t declare everything happens for a reason and will work out in the end, it asks, “How can I support you?” Instead of instructing someone to look on the bright side or put a smile on their face, mindfulness responds, “It’s so hard to recognize the good right now. How can I make things less stressful for you? Additionally, mindfulness should include asking your trusted confidant before you offload to make sure it’s safe and okay to do so.

Negative emotions don’t need to be avoided, in fact talking about them to find a way forward should be normalized. Positivity should never be a pretence that encourages good vibes only as a default response — healing cannot begin if there’s no acknowledgement of what needs to mend.

Let’s leave toxic positivity behind in 2020, it’s time to revitalize mindfulness and actionable empathy instead.

Further Reading/Support:

Supporting Someone Through A Tough Time – headspace

What To Say When A Friend Is Struggling – NPR

Toxic Positivity Is Real — And It’s A Big Problem During The Pandemic – healthline

NAMI Helpline – a free, nationwide U.S. resource that offers experienced peer-support guidance and advice

CheckPoint – global (by country) resources for mental health support

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46 thoughts on “Turning Toxic Positivity Into Actionable Empathy”

  1. Toxic positivity is one of the reasons my partner hates stuff like mindfulness and well-being advice at where they work, and I can’t fault them on that. If you believe everything will be alright in the end, it sounds like a good positive outlook, but it might also stop you from doing what needs to be done to make things alright in the end

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    1. Exactly! Some types of positivity sound good but they actually don’t help someone deal with things or face what needs to be done. I’ve often found people have said things to me, which were all well-meaning and based on kindness, that completely silenced me from sharing what was causing me difficulties. Often getting through something involves doing something about it, so our care for others may as well involve actually being supportive. Thank you so much for stopping by!

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  2. Hmm……toxic positivity people usually doesn’t like negative things. They like everything to be positive and cheerful. But what they don’t realise is that their attitude hurt others. They make people feel guilty for being sad. And sometimes people may think that they don’t have feelings. So that’s why they need to change.

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  3. You hit the head on the nail with this one. This reminded me so much of my ex, didn’t know the term for it but he definitely did toxic positivity. All it ever did was hurt me and make me feel bad for not being in a cheery mood. I really enjoyed reading this, great work 😊👍🏽!

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  4. This is a very interesting post. I like the idea of being positive and looking for a glimmer of light because it gives us hope. However having someone being positive but not acknowledging other feelings when you are down etc I think is toxic. Thank you for sharing.

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  5. There’s nothing worse than when I tell someone I feel down and they say “it could be so much worse, you should think about people who aren’t as lucky as you”. Thank you for this post, it was enlightening.

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    1. This has happened to me so many times that all it did was teach me to be quiet. You cannot find a solution or be motivated to work at one if you’re shot down for just feeling what you feel (whihc is valid). I’m so happy this resonnated with you — thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Social media is definitely a place where toxic positivity seems to have free reign, I 100% agree. I’m so glad this resonnated with you as I was a little nervous at first to share it but felt that it was important to put words to! Thanks for stopping by!

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  6. This is very true, and I feel it goes back to education around feeling comfortable with our own difficult emotions, rather than skirting over them as if they’re no big deal. Since if we can’t give ourselves that same kind of empathy and compassion, how can we give it to anyone else.

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  7. You make some good points. I personally experienced this when I lost my first child. People kept telling me he was in a better place so I should be happy for him, or I could always have another one because I got pregnant quickly the first time. All it did was break my heart more. People are allowed to grieve.

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    1. Having to deal with toxic positivity after the loss of a child must have been extremely hard especially as you try to navigate this type of grief and pain. People should be able to grieve in their own way — I completely agree with you — and I am sorry that this wasn’t your experience at this time. Thank you so much for sharing as I’ve no doubt that someone reading this who is in a similar situation or knows someone going through it will be helped by your openness. ♡

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  8. Wow, this was such an informative read! I think we live in an age of everyone trying to constantly manifest and speak ONLY positively, which is great but it can be so toxic especially when it almost feels as if one shouldn’t vent when they’re in a bad situation or even acknowledge that they’re in a bad situation. I loved this read so much and I caught myself nodding throughout.

    Great read!

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    1. Exactly! The idea that to face our problems or things we need help with can only be spoken about positively is extremely toxic. Sometimes things are truly awful and we need a chance to speak truth so that we can get the help and support we need. Thank you so much for reading!

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  9. This post is so interesting to read! I think positivity is amazing and something we all should try more of, but it’s also so important to recognise life can be bad sometimes and that’s normal, just like you’ve said xx

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    1. Positivity is great (the good type) and can be a great way to find the courage to change something, face our fears or seek out help and support when we need it, it’s just important that fake positivity (the toxic type) is used so often and seems to have become almost a brand. You’re 100% correct that life isn’t always good and we need to feel emboldened to talk about it and work through it. Thank you so much for reading!

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  10. Thank you for this! I love the fact that more and more people are aware of toxic positivity. It’s so important to talk about your struggles instead of suppressing them. It took me far too long to learn this, but I’m glad I learned it when I did. Hopefully more and more people will begin to understand this so that talking about our feelings and struggles becomes the norm and people don’t feel like they have to “fake it” all of the time.

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    1. You’re 100% right, suppressing what we’re feeling or going through doesn’t actually help or encourage finding a solution. I’m definitely seeing more people being aware of toxic positivity so I am hopeful that fewer people will use it. Thank you so much for reading!

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  11. What a great read!! I think trying to stay positive at times can be a good thing or helpful. But I do agree that suppressing and never really dealing with what’s troubling you(or someone else) in the name of positvity is toxic.
    It’s definitely okay to not be okay all the time.Plus acknowledging that may serve us even better than trying to suppress how we feel.

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  12. I think it also depends on who the person is, and what context we are referring to here. Sometimes, toxic positivity just might be the antidote that is needed.

    I would say that there is no prescribed way to approach certain situations, but a good way to think about it if we are in their shoes, what would we want to hear the most? When we ask this question of ourselves, we should also consider the other person’s experiences and outlook. What works for us may not work for the people around us.

    Great advice here, Molly. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. I think there is nuance but toxic positivity is just that — toxic. There are different types of approach that may be exactly what is needed to help someone, and that is in itself something that isn’t a negative, but toxic positivity is where the struggles and concerns of someone going through something are completely disregarded. I agree that there is no prescribed response to certain situations as each individual brings their own knowledge and experience and as long as it is done with a view to actually supporting someone then it isn’t toxic. I think if someone comes to help and uses actionable empathy instead then you can’t really go too wrong. Thanks so much for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The links throughout this post have some really great information about toxic positivity and its impacts — they were a real eye-opener for me — and how dismissive it is, so they may add some clarity too. I really appreciate your input and taking the time to read/respond!

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  13. “Negative emotions don’t need to be avoided, in fact talking about them to find a way forward should be normalized.” So much this! I truly wish this was a normal way of thinking and acting. I always try to validate people’s feelings because so often I hear things like “I shouldn’t feel this way” or “I’m too emotional” or some other dismissive point, when really embracing, acknowledging, and finding a way forward is so much more valuable. People who go the toxic positivity route are not ones I will share deeply with as I don’t find it helpful. I’m bookmarking this post because you’ve articulated things so well!

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    1. Exactly! The people who don’t use real empathy or understanding are not really looking to support others — and that’s fine — but I’d rather have honesty over toxicity. If you don’t want to help or don’t know how (or don’t want to) it’s best to say so than risk invalidating someone and potentially causing harm. Thanks for reading!

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  14. Actionable empathy is something we all should work on. I would rather someone help talk me through challenging times rather than simply saying get over it. When dealing with feelings it so easy for others to say to just get over it. And whether we talk about things or not, problems don’t just go away.

    Thank you for this informative read.

    xo Erica

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    1. Exactly! There is a big difference between not helping at all and ignoring someone’s difficulties and actually being able to listen and offer real support. Telling someone to get over it or it isn’t that bad may seen motivational but it’s the opposite. Thank you for reading!

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  15. I love this take on the topic, and I’m totally with you. Insincere positivity is kind of like taking a shortcut to, as you call it here, actionable empathy. Love that term for it. And I really like your side by side graphic, that’s really helpful!

    Like

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