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.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 7.50(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
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.
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.
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.
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.
Table of Contents
Introduction: You Deserve More Than Just Good Vibes 1
Chapter 1 What Is Toxic Positivity? 9
Chapter 2 Why Positivity Doesn't Always Work 49
Chapter 3 When Positivity Doesn't Help 75
Chapter 4 Stop Shaming Yourself 107
Chapter 5 How to Process an Emotion 141
Chapter 6 How to Complain Effectively 168
Chapter 7 How to Support Someone 191
Chapter 8 Discrimination with a Smile 228
Chapter 9 How to Find Fulfillment in a Difficult World 254
Final note: Reminders About Being Human 271
Recommended Reading 279
About the Author 295