Toxic Positivity: Putting a Happy Face on Life

Your friend calls and invites you to join him for coffee. You sit opposite each other at the neighborhood coffee bar and he finally makes eye contact with you.

“I got fired this morning,” he says.

After a few moments, you say, “It could be worse. Now you will finally have more time to yourself.”

The next night you call a different friend with the news you just received. “Margie died.”

Your friend, aware that your sister had been battling cancer for months, says, “At least she is in a better place.”

Both responses tried to put a positive spin on potentially devastating events.

Therapist Whitney Goodman would say such statements could build a wall between you and your friends. Why? They are examples of toxic positivity, like telling someone who just lost both legs in an accident to walk it off.

In her book, Toxic Positivity, Goodman says she is not “a meditating, tea-drinking, yoga type of therapist.” She hates inspirational quotes posted on walls. She says we should tell it like it is because strong relationships are not built on just the good times. Don’t suppress the bad, she writes, because the path to growth is to be you first.

Through her clients’ stories, written to protect identities, she tells how toxic positivity can leave people with nothing to say, feeling unfulfilled and isolated. She shares examples of what she believes are more constructive responses and describes times when it might be best to ask a question first. She advises to choose the people you share your feelings with carefully because sharing with the wrong person can make it worse.

Goodman writes that we live in a world obsessed with being happy and in the long run it doesn’t work. So, are we all meant to be unhappy? She says of course not, the good in life is great, but it is better when we are honest with each other.

I am weary of self-help books promoting strategies like writing daily gratitude lists and smiling through every day. Both might work for some, but Toxic Positivity has taught me that sometimes it is best to pay attention to my and others’ emotions and to look for the feelings behind the emotions. Goodman promotes processing feelings by going for a walk, writing about them, or talking to a trusted friend. When a friend trusts you with their honest story, listen to what they have to say, she advises.

Goodman’s prescriptions have brought me to ask, “Is a good life all about happiness?” Or is it about something else? Being real? Contentment? Toxic Positivity enlightened me about how to make relationships more satisfying for everyone involved.

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