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How to Spot Toxic Positivity

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistDecember 04, 2020

I generally like being around positive people as much as anyone else does. They’re enthusiastic, uplifting, optimistic, and seem excited about life. But there are negative sides of positivity -- maybe you’ve encountered some of them before. You might even recognize yourself in some of these six types of toxic positivity.

1. Happier-Than-Thou

Some people seem to use positivity to fuel their egos with smug self-congratulation. They have an air of being above it all, untouched by the problems and distress that burden the rest of us. And yet there’s a falseness to it -- a positive veneer that’s covering a deeper layer of negativity and insecurity. True contentment doesn’t need to flaunt itself.

2. Stiff-Arming

I had a friend in college who was extremely cheerful. Whenever I asked how he was doing, the answer was always the same: “Great!” He never had any problems to talk about; if I ever described one of mine he would smile and say something encouraging and optimistic. I really liked and enjoyed seeing him, but I wondered why our relationship never seemed to go anywhere. We never made a point to get together and only ever saw one another in class or in passing.

Years later I learned that he’d had a lot more going on than I’d realized. What seemed like constant positivity was his need to put up a strong front, to prevent anyone from seeing the struggles he was having.

I was disappointed in hindsight that I hadn’t been able to know him more deeply, though it was hard to blame him -- I recognize a similar response in myself at times when I’m in a difficult place and don’t want others to know. A quick, smiling response of, “Fine, how are you?” is a socially acceptable way of keeping others at a distance.

At the same time, this form of positivity can get in the way of forming genuine connections with people. We don’t have to always complain about how tired, stressed, or busy we are, but we can let people know that we’re real people with the full range of human emotions.

3. Tone Deaf

There’s a time for everything, as captured in the well-known lines from Ecclesiastes: “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Positivity is only positive when it fits the situation; light-hearted laughter is great for a party, but not so much for a funeral. Tone deaf positivity is self-centered, inappropriate, or denies others’ feelings.  

For example, a friend of mine described trying to talk with her friend about how upset she was in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But her friend was having none of it: “I’m working on a positive thing,” she said, leaving my friend to sort through the emotions on her own. To be honest, I’ve been tone deaf myself on several occasions, especially when I’ve felt uncomfortable with the gravity of the situation. In retrospect it was easy to see how insensitive I had been.

4. Look-on-the-Bright-Side

This form of toxic positivity doesn’t entirely deny your negative feelings, but pushes them aside. No matter what the disappointment is, the person always manages to find a silver lining. For example, years ago when my wife and I described our sadness at losing a pregnancy, one person replied, “Hey, at least you know you can get pregnant!”

It’s easy to understand the motivation behind these kinds of responses. It’s uncomfortable to sit with another person’s unpleasant emotions, and the normal human response is to try to make things better. But the real path to “better” often goes through difficult feelings, rather than skirting around them. The best thing we can offer those who are hurting is a genuine human connection and a warm embrace.

5. Passive-Aggressive

One of the most destructive forms of positivity weaponizes it in some way, like being nice to one person to stick it to someone else. This behavior is easy to find in social media when a person flaunts the good in their lives to feel better about themselves, like posting super-happy selfies to make their ex feel bad. These unhealthy expressions of positivity are toxic to the person who uses them, too, since they reinforce the underlying feelings of inadequacy or spite.

6. Emotional Self-Censoring

The final type of toxic positivity is an inside job. Rather than denying someone else’s difficult emotions, you deny your own. You don’t let yourself feel what you feel -- maybe you’ve been taught not to let yourself have strong negative feelings, or you fear them, or worry you’ll get stuck in them if you let yourself go there.

Denying the reality of what you feel can keep you from experiencing the full range of emotions, since cutting off the lows makes it harder to have true highs. It tends to create distance between you and the people you love, as well, because intimacy requires emotional honesty. It’s also extremely hard to work through painful emotions if we never acknowledge they’re there.

What to Do

Paradoxically, positivity can be one of the hardest toxic behaviors to address. Toxic negative behaviors like angry outbursts or emotional abuse are clearly bad, whereas positivity is assumed to be a good thing. Calling it out in someone else can make you look like you’re being unreasonable or like you don’t want people to be happy. If it’s happening in a relationship you care about, bring it up gently and directly, with openness and sensitivity, the way you’d want someone to bring it up with you.

As with other forms of toxic behavior, be careful about trying to get the person to change. Some people may not be able to even see their behavior for what it is, much less to acknowledge the damage it causes. If they’re unwilling to change, minimizing time around them may be your best option.

And what if you identify toxic positivity in yourself? First, grant yourself some compassion. There’s probably good reason for your behavior, like having learned it at a young age or trying unconsciously to protect yourself. From this place of self-acceptance, be curious about what’s behind your unhealthy positivity. Writing in a journal can be a helpful way to explore your thoughts and feelings. Also consider talking with a friend, loved one, or therapist as you seek more self-awareness. Let it be a growth experience as you move toward greater emotional integrity.      

 

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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