As the term toxic positivity gains traction, especially in education, I am often asked what I think about it. My answer is that it is real, and it happens when you ignore or discount someone's feelings or have a lack of empathy, awareness and understanding of what they are going through while superficially telling them to just be positive or stay positive.
As someone who writes and speaks a lot about positivity and positive leadership, I want to make it clear that being positive doesn't mean you put on a fake smile, ignore how you or others feel, sugarcoat situations and ignore reality. It means you maintain optimism, belief and faith and genuinely encourage others to create a better reality.
The challenge is that there's a fine line between encouraging someone and sharing toxic positivity. For example, if someone just found out they had cancer you wouldn't want the first words out of your mouth to be, "Hey, it's going to make you stronger. Just stay positive and it will work out." Instead, you would want to ask them how they are doing, let them know you are there for them and ask how you can support and encourage them during this time.
Or perhaps a friend of yours lost their job during the pandemic and they are being negative and spiraling downward. In this case saying, "Just stay positive" won't likely be well received. But acknowledging their challenge, understanding their fear, helping them create a vision for their future and sharing a time when you felt hopeless but were able to rebound would be encouraging and helpful.
The key in sharing real and helpful positivity is to realize that it's okay to not be okay. It's normal to have negative emotions, anxiety and fear. You want to acknowledge these feelings in yourself and others knowing they are part of the human experience. But at the same time, you don't want to let these negative feelings take you and others down a spiral staircase of despair. You want to find ways to lift yourself and others up and how you do it will be different for each person.
People need encouragement and I do not want people to think encouragement is a bad thing. I've seen too many give up because of fear, stress, anxiety, depression and discouragement. I often share encouragement on social media in addition to our Daily Positive emails and every so often I'll have someone accuse me of toxic positivity. It's funny to me because this same post that someone felt was toxic also helped many others shift their mindset and perspective in a positive way. While one person wrote, "This is toxic positivity," most comments said, "I needed this today."
This is a great example that even genuine and helpful encouragement can be perceived by someone as toxic positivity if they aren’t open to it, aren’t ready to receive it, or are experiencing the kind of pain and suffering that causes them to receive your message differently than you intended. In this case, it’s not toxic positivity that’s the problem but someone who has a toxic spirit.
This underscores the big concern I have about toxic positivity. The term can be used by toxic people to vilify positivity and positive leaders who genuinely care about others. Well-meaning leaders trying to encourage their team have been accused by those who don't want encouragement as sharing toxic positivity. People trying to be positive have been attacked by those who aren’t and their weapon was the label of toxic positivity.
I'm also concerned that toxic positivity is being used by those who are suffering to justify staying stuck in their pain instead of finding hope and a path forward. They stay stuck as a victim instead of changing their mindset and narrative to become the hero in their own story. I've honestly been shocked at the advice some psychologists have shared in several toxic positivity articles that only perpetuates suffering.
The truth is fear, anxiety, depression and discouragement are a much bigger problem than toxic positivity. We can’t let those who label faith, love and hope as toxic positivity keep us from encouraging others. A positive mindset is helpful. Pessimists don't change the world. Optimists believe in and create a brighter better future. The world needs more positivity, not negativity. It needs more hope and encouragement, not discouragement. The word encourage means “to put courage into” and when you encourage someone you put courage into them.
So, don't stop being positive and encouraging. Toxic positivity is real but so are the benefits of real positivity. Just make sure you acknowledge how people feel. Listen to their concerns. Understand their fears. Find out the best way to encourage your team members, family and friends and then do your best to support them and lift them up.
Real positive > toxic positivity