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When Positivity Becomes Toxic

Posted on 22 Comments 5 min read

So! Positive people: don’t you just hate them?

Wait: that was a bit negative even for me, wasn’t it? Let’s start this one again…

Look, I get it: some people like to see the best in everything and everyone. They like to continue to be positive no matter what, and they adopt those words as their mantra, believing that if you can just be positive then everything will be so much better. The smug gits. They don’t do this in order to be annoying, obviously: they do it because it helps them – and because they believe it will help you, too. 

But what about when it doesn’t

 What about when all this relentless positivity does is make you feel even worse than you do already? What about those times when something truly awful happens, but Positive Pam over there tells you that “Everything happens for a reason!” (What reason could possibly be good enough, though, PAM? HUH?) What about when you just really need to vent to someone who understands, but all you get is a bunch of platitudes about how you “Just have to look on the bright side!” What about when there IS no ‘bright side’? 

That’s when positivity becomes toxic.

That’s when it becomes annoying. 

That’s when it can even start to be dangerous: because, when someone needs your support, but all you’ve got for them is the reminder to be positive at all costs, because someone else has it worse, you’re not actually helping, are you? No, all you’re really doing is shutting them down: which isn’t very positive, really, is it?

wine glasses

This is something that’s been on my mind a lot, lately: mostly because it occurred to me that the main thing holding me back when it comes to blogging / social media right now isn’t the fear of trolling, or negativity, but the thought of all of that toxic positivity I know will be coming my way if I dare to be truly honest. Who wants to open up to the internet, after all, knowing there’s a good chance they’re just going to be shut right back down again with a giant dose of It Could Be Worse or an unhelpful reminder to Look on the Bright Side? Why would I post something on Instagram when I know I’ll get a flurry of messages which are supposed to make me feel  better, but which actually just make me feel like I’ve been (very politely) told to shut up?

The people who say these things mean well, obviously. That doesn’t mean their words can’t be toxic, though. Positivity, for instance, becomes toxic when…

– It encourages people to believe that their feelings aren’t valid and that they’re wrong or stupid for having them.

– It takes a scolding tone, which has the effect of belittling the person you’re trying to deliver your “uplifting” message to.

– It diminishes problems or feelings which are absolutely valid, and which require empathy, not hectoring.

– It makes people afraid to open up and be totally honest about how they’re really feeling, for fear or being scolded for being “too negative”.

– It convinces people that it would be silly to ask for actual, practical help (Which, in some cases, might be badly needed…), when the power of positive thinking is all they really need.

Refinery 29 recently described toxic positivity as “unintentional gaslighting”, which I think is an interesting way of looking at it: instead of the intended effect of making the person feel better about whatever it is they’re dealing with, it actually just makes them question their own response to it, and feel like they’re somehow in the wrong for feeling the way they do – even when those feelings are totally normal and valid.

Of course, it’s important to say here that not all positivity is toxic. Sometimes it’s helpful. Sometimes it’s appropriate. Sometimes it’s just the kick in the backside you need to help you dig your way out of whatever deep, dark hole you’ve found yourself in, and gain some much-needed perspective. 

But not always.

Increasingly these days, I find myself more in need of empathy than “inspiration”: of understanding rather than pep-talks . More and more often, I find myself writing blog posts, and then deleting them without ever publishing them, for fear of the negativity shaming that’s become commonplace when someone posts something that doesn’t have a glib, “inspirational” message attached to it somewhere. 

People mean well: of course they do. But I can’t help feel that the constant insistence on positivity NO MATTER WHAT is – if I can be super-dramatic for a moment – robbing us of our humanity a little bit. It’s teaching us to believe that normal, human emotions are actually a bit strange, and maybe even shameful. It’s making us lose our empathy and compassion, and I suspect it’s probably making it harder for people to open up and ask for support if they know they’re just going to be told that their feelings are invalid, and should be repressed at all costs.

So, how do you avoid making your natural positivity toxic to other people? 

Listen.  Try not to judge. Remember that everyone is different, and that something that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you could feel like the end of the world to someone else. Don’t play Tragedy Olympics: we’re all in this together and while there will always, always be someone worse off, we’re all entitled to feel however we feel about it. Above all, empathise, empathise, empathise: because sometimes all a person needs is to be heard, and to know that someone cares – so be that person, rather than the one who insists that normal human emotions be hidden, conquered or repressed.

It’s OK to not be OK all the time: and it’s OK to not be 100% positive all the time, too. Especially in times like these…

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22 Comments
  • Rosie
    March 20, 2020

    Personally, I would much rather see a post that I believe to be a true documentation of what the writer is feeling at that time. I’d much rather read about something deemed negative than be bombarded with inspirational quotes that I think are, quite frankly, bullshit. Keep writing, Amber x

    • Amber
      March 20, 2020

      My feelings exactly. And, I mean, if people genuinely are feeling positive then fair play to them – just don’t try to force other people to pretend to feel the same way!

  • Dubliner
    March 20, 2020

    I’m struggling at the moment- finding it hard to feel positive about the situation. I’m tempted to write an honest post on facebook or instagram but don’t want to get people replying telling me to look on the bright side… I guess it’s human nature to try to cheer a person up but in times like these it’s ok to feel what you feel. What’s happening right now in the world IS scary.

    • Amber
      March 20, 2020

      Yeah, I think especially when it’s all still so new to us all, it’s OK to be upset about it all… I’m particularly frustrated by the people who keep telling me what a great opportunity it’ll be to read books and learn a new language: not if you have a 2 year old, it isn’t!

      • Ivy
        March 22, 2020

        This is so true – I am a health worker and if anything, I am out of my house longer than ever, between staff shortages and trying to get myself to a grocery store. I can’t work from home and people telling me how this is wonderful time for creating a new exercise routine or learn a new hobby just makes me feel so weary…

  • Brenda
    March 20, 2020

    I have to agree with you. These times are unprecedented. They’re downright scary. On so many levels. The comparison to “gaslighting” is bang on. I admit, I have a hard time with people who aren’t empathetic and I have actually chosen to stay away from them. A few years ago, my son almost died in a very traumatic way. It was the worst thing I had ever had to witness and I think I still suffer from PTSD as a result. One of my close friends (at the time) kept downplaying it. Even referred to it as “drama”. She didn’t seem to “get it” and as a result I emotionally distanced myself from her. I think it’s important to surround yourself with people who care. People who, even though they may not be experiencing the same thing you are, can find some empathy and compassion. It seems like the older I get, the harder it is to find those people and my circle of friends is getting smaller as a result.

    • Amber
      March 20, 2020

      Oh Brenda, that’s just… I honestly don’t have the words. What a cruel thing for someone to say. I really hope your son is back to full health now, and I’m not surprised you have PTSD – I don’t think you ever really get over something like that. I really worry how all of this is going to affect people once it’s all over 🙁

    • Emerald
      March 20, 2020

      Brenda, sorry to jump in here. Your friend is a jerk. I am still traumatised from being a street robbery victim (nothing violent, just a bag snatch when I was still living in London). How very dare your “friend”!

  • Helen
    March 20, 2020

    I love this post! I couldn’t agree with you more, honestly sometimes I find the best road to genuine positivity is to have a bloody good rant about what’s troubling me, then laugh at myself a little about how negative I’ve just been and then move on from it! I think you need to feel the lows to reach the highs, It’s important not to give yourself or others guilt for feeling sad or low or just pissed off about something, but try to give it a time frame then pack it up and do something that will make you smile 😊

    • Amber
      March 20, 2020

      This is so true – I find it hard to trust people who don’t seem to have any emotional range and are just super happy all the time. I mean, great that they’re happy, but it seems so strange to not have ANY other emotions…

  • ReaderRita
    March 20, 2020

    Oh, Thank You!
    Everything you said is perfect, and I couldn’t agree more.
    I, for one, trust a person more when they open up with real, honest feelings; as jumbly, emotional, negative, positive, or some natural human mix thereof- as they can be.
    A very wise therapist once told me: just because someone else may have it worse than you doesn’t mean that your feelings about your particular situation aren’t valid. Empathy is wonderful, but your life is real, and so are your feelings. Feel them. Process them. It’s good.

    • Amber
      March 20, 2020

      Exactly: expecting people to repress negative emotions is so harmful – we have to be allowed to feel what we feel!

  • Nicola
    March 20, 2020

    SO TRUE!!

    It was my 30th birthday this week and all my plans were cancelled due to the obvious. I’ve had so many people telling me ‘don’t worry, you can celebrate later’ or ‘it could be worse, you could be stranded abroad somewhere’ which… I know is true but sometimes I just want to be sad and feel sorry for myself rather than trying to find the so called ‘bright side’.

    Rant over. Grrrr.

    • Amber
      March 20, 2020

      Oh, this kind of thing annoys me SO much! I’ve seen SO many people be shot down in flames because they’ve dared to admit that they’re disappointed about missing out on something they were looking forward to, and it’s just bizarre: of COURSE people will be disappointed – it doesn’t mean they don’t care about what’s going on in the world, or that they think their event is more important – it just means they’re human. (Says the woman who is absolutely gutted that her holiday has been cancelled. I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to get everyone through this alive, obviously … but I still wish I could go on that holiday 🙁 )

      (Oh, and happy birthday!)

  • Emerald
    March 20, 2020

    Oh, this drives me bonkers! All this “happens for a reason” nonsense – explain 9/11, pray? A total negation of many people’s *quite rational* fears. I think it’s partly down to the Pollyanna feeling so scared him or herself that they project outwards. They won’t let *you* express your concerns because they can’t.

    Admittedly I’m a glass half-full person which I’m glad about. I don’t have health anxiety luckily (although I’m scared of general anaesthetics – please don’t give me one of those!). But if someone told me they had negative feelings around something I’d try and listen and not tell them that hey, we live in a beautiful universe. It *is* gaslighting, albeit well-meaning.

  • Cheila Martins
    March 20, 2020

    I’m not feeling positive at all right now. I don’t feel like crying and being super tragic but I’m also not ok with not knowing what is going to happen with us. I’ve been stuck at home for weeks, wondering who is gonna get the virus and die, just how many people. We’ve never been through this and it is scary. I’m so bored it might kill me if the virus doesn’t.

  • Lindsey
    March 21, 2020

    I was always suspicious of those Facebook positive quotes people put up and tended to block their creator. The recent influx of “Be Kind” after Caroline Flack died seemed weird as it wasn’t when she was experiencing the abuse but once she had gone and was too late. I want to ask what being kind actually means to the poster. I’ve had a lightbulb moment reading this excellent post, so thank you so much. Positivity can be toxic and it is like gaslighting. I’ve mourned the loss of a friend, still alive, but not in my life because of the constant Duracell bunny type comments when depressingly me they responders with but you are so lucky, or it could be worse. I know that, but in that moment you just wantto be heard. I feeling more empowered now I know I was right to be suspicious.

  • Rotem
    March 22, 2020

    I just read through the last two weeks of your posts, and I have to say your point of view is so refreshing. As if this whole situation isn’t stressful enough, I’m currently 32 weeks pregnant (first pregnancy). While I want to be informed and understand the situation, I find the news can be too apocalyptic and depressing. At the same time, Social Media is full of people trying to continue on as if nothing is happening (which I understand, but am not always in the mood for). Your posts are just putting my own thoughts into words and validating my own feelings, which I find a much better way to deal with this (in a “Hey, I’m not crazy, someone else is thinking the same things!” kinda way).

  • I am a glass half empty person. I’m always having difficulty in life. Right now my son has severe problems. As a result I am under tremendous stress which is physically and financially devastating. All I want is normal. However, I know it will never be normal. I’ve been told by people the same thing that everyone else has, “Lighten Up”, or “Everything happens for a reason.” I hate that. Some of us are just unlucky. Others never have a problem. It’s frustrating as hell. I am actually finding the Coronavirus as a good thing. I can try to catch up on all the things I’ve had to put on the back burner. I’m not sure I can, but at least I have some time. All that positive thinking has really made me upset. When I write, I try to not tell anyone anything anymore. Honestly, they don’t care. So I turned to blogging to vent. We are all obsessed with positive thinking. (Society) I think that makes people unable to function when things go wrong. I wish happiness for those of us having a rough time. It’s nice to hear that I am not the only one.

  • Miss Kitty
    March 23, 2020

    We have had to cancel our wedding in May. While people are mostly pretty sympathetic, sometimes their attempts to cheer you up just grate. “At least no-one in your family has the virus, or you would feel much worse!” Yes I am aware that I am very lucky that no one close to me has it yet, but does that mean that I am only allowed to be sad if someone gets sick? I found this article very reassuring https://themighty.com/2020/03/sad-about-first-world-problems-covid-19/ Sometimes you just don’t want to be Miss Pollyanna Sunshine look-on-the-bright-side.

    • Amber
      March 24, 2020

      Aww, I’m so sorry – that absolutely sucks! And it should go without saying that we’d all rather cancel events etc than see a loved one die or get sick: it doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to feel sad about it, though!

  • Donna
    March 28, 2020

    100% agree with this. I hate it when people guilt you out of your feelings because someone, somewhere is “worse off”.