Toxic Positivity – Really???

By Harold Stearley

I know you’ve seen it.  It is as constant as the Northern Star. 

A continual onslaught. 

It is the branding, renaming, inventing, concocting, devising, fabricating, and excogitating of terminology and buzz words in an attempt to “newly” describe some concept or phenomenon that exists in the minds of the propagators.  It could be something that was non-existent until the label was contrived.  Or it may have existed forever, but someone attempts to claim credit by architecting a word or phrase to rebrand the old as new again.  And the definition of some of these terms can be counter-intuitive as they mean exactly the opposite of what you might think they mean. 

Often, the label comes first. 

Then there is a quest to find evidence to substantiate it. 

And lately, I see the adjective “toxic” being attached to all manner of words to create such labels.  After all, anything in too large of a quantity could be said to be “toxic,” right?  

Toxic waste – ok, understandable. That is something that is truly physically poisonous to all who come in contact with it.

But now we have toxic people, toxic relationships, toxic Mums, toxic personality disorders, toxic gamers, toxic assets, toxic debt, toxic workplaces, toxic atmospheres, toxic masculinity, toxic femininity, toxic culture, toxic subjects, toxic, toxic, toxic . . . In fact, the word toxic has been used so much recently that the Oxford Dictionary declared it to be the “Word of the Year” for 2018.   But its roots trace back to the mid-17th century “from the medieval Latin ‘toxicus,’ meaning ‘poisoned’ or ‘imbued with poison’.”

And now we have – “toxic positivity.”

Here’s its definition: “. . . the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations.  The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.”

And here is another definition, just so we’re all on the same page.  “Toxic positivity is the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset or ‘positive vibes.’”

I suppose you could also call this the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” mentality.  Which, by the way, that phrase has been documented all the way back to 1834.

I’ll be one of the first persons to admit that there are some platitudes out there that just aren’t going to cut it when it comes to shaping or improving attitudes and perspectives.  Or for acknowledging pain and lending an empathetic ear.  Those expressions are simply not going to help someone going through some type of emotional or physical trauma.

“You got to roll with the punches,” is just the sort of phase I’m talking about.  No help whatsoever.  Moreover, the use of cliches demonstrate the lack of thought or original ideas.  Pre-packaged buzz words don’t really address an individual situation, or an individual’s suffering.

But grossly overbroad definitions are just as unhelpful to effective communication.  And if adopted, like in this case, such generalizations have the power to invalidate every attempt at promoting positive feelings as being somehow sinister or as a self-motivated way of brushing off another person’s feelings.  Or perhaps, turn a compassionate thought into a be positive or be gone castigation.

Ok, so do we now need to put the kibosh on every attempt of promoting or instilling positivity?  And just what is the LD 50 for positivity?  (That’s the dose of a substance that is lethal to 50% of those receiving the dosage – in this case a dose of positivity.)  Just how much will kill the authentic human emotional experience? 

These definitions of toxic positivity are sort of circular and “self-proving,” aren’t they?   Both make multiple assumptions about the intent of the speaker, and the interpretation of the listener. 

A positive comment, or a comment promoting an optimistic way to view a situation, can still acknowledge another person’s negative or traumatic situation without minimizing it.  Such a statement can be made with the intent to offer solace or hope and validate that person’s feelings and emotions.  Positivity, in general, should not fall into the sphere of right versus wrong, black versus white, helpful versus hurtful, or cynical versus naïve, or it’s either one way or no way at all.

Personally, I’ve been known to be a bit cynical at times.  And it might seem a bit cynical for me to express cynicism about an equally cynical over-generalized term.  A term that nullifies every opportunity to be positivity positive. 

I’m not sure if I said that right.  Was that a triple cynical negative?   Followed by a double positive?  Oh well, I hope you get it. 😊

In Metta

Postscript 1: I’m not saying that the concept of toxic positivity is totally invalid. Sure people say things all the time that are invalidating of another person’s perspective or feelings. I am just cautioning on the overuse of over-generalizations and prefabricated labels that have the effect of stymying any form of meaningful communication for fear of coming off in the wrong way.

Postscript 2: Believe me, I’ve worked in a few toxic workplaces with some rather toxic people, so I’m onboard with those terms. Some had dysfunctional management that produced generalized chaos and confusion impeding job performance. Some had just plain mean management or mean managers – for no apparent reason other than they liked treating people badly. Those individuals were just, for lack of a buzz word, assholes.

But the idea of branding an entire state of mind, I believe, stretches the concept a little beyond it’s breaking point.

Postscript 3: To add a bit of context to this post, I’ve been participating on a social media platform called Dr. Eric Perry’s Positivity Community. You should check it out.

Unlike a reactionary response, this platform provides a place to express positivity proactively. It’s a great way to start or end a day, without what one might think of as throwing platitudes after someone’s traumatic experiences. I don’t believe cultivating such a positive outlook is in anyway toxic or demeaning to anyone’s authentic emotional experiences. In fact, I believe such an outlook can be very therapeutic and healing.

Photo: I wasn’t exactly sure what pic I wanted to use for this one because I usually try to draw some sort of an analogy between the pic and the main story in a separate mini-story. But I settled on this one – the image in the rear view mirror. We often see things in hindsight, after the fact, which is much of the way I see how buzzwords are born. It is a backward looking perspective creating a label or description and then attempting to apply it in a forward manner to other situations. The “rear-view” perspective here is leaving the beautiful mountains behind, yet a storm was brewing, so that magical and enchanted place was about to turn deadly – or toxic. 🙂

Further Readings:

7 Reasons Why ‘Toxic’ is Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2018

Why The Phrase ‘Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps’ Is Nonsense

‘Toxic Positivity’ Is Real — and It’s a Big Problem During the Pandemic

16 thoughts on “Toxic Positivity – Really???”

  1. In some ways, humanity has little choice but be toxic, so far. The directions we take to recover from it might be more efficient than others. But most of us manage to stand again. The world becomes more digital. This means people lose track of community as a presence. Definitions become more clinical, cold as data. That is what I see as human’s biggest hurdle. It’s how we keep from making contact in a loving way with each other and the environment. Sometimes optimism is all that comes between us and disaster. It’s how we push forward against the odds. “Fake it until you make it.” But life is not a fight as people perceive. It’s a cooperative. No, not Communism, or any form of government. If you look at it as a scientist or theologian might to define the perfect balance within a community of bacteria or humans. It would definitely include aspects of harmony and sharing, developing together with common goals. I personally believe that, after we have managed the pandemic, that we come to a new frame of mind that brings us physically together again to develop truer relationships and stop hiding behind labels which are inevitably incorrect. I’m certain the other side isn’t as bad as they sound in the news. I’m certain there are more community building aspects of positive thinking than negative. If I didn’t default to moving in positive directions, I’d have killed myself by now. I used to follow some online Psych doctors. But one of my favorites was constantly bringing up ways we can diagnose complex and negative conditions on our neighbors, “How to recognize a narcissist.” This was to the general public, as if we have the credentials to judge other’s psychological makeup. It bothered me. I would imagine people go to WebMD and places to diagnose themselves with the most extreme diseases, without the proper training. And how many are inventing diagnosis for people they don’t know. (Although, with our president, it’s not hard to think something is wrong.) But it’s just another way of passing around mass toxicity. IMO

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh boy you had me at toxic positivity. I don’t like double fake negatives. They just shouldn’t be used. I someone in my family say about me, no one can be as happy as I am. But truly that is not so because I choose to be happy and content even when life throws me situations I really wouldn’t wise on my worst enemy.
    I really don’t get a lot of things I’m seeing and hearing lately, so I try to keep my mind and eyes focused on higher things. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I haven’t yet heard the phrase, but I’ve encountered the whole idea that positivity is being excessively used and has the effect of dismissing the genuine unhappiness/trauma that many people live with. I like to be positive (but like you also have a cynical shadow side) I guess pretty much anything can be used excessively, especially platitudes that really are used to shut people up more so than to engage in discussion. This is really well said and I have to agree. Not everything needs to be described as toxic and attaching toxic to positivity seems to be an oxymora….in my opinion anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s an odd concept – too much positivity. I do know that there are times where people, including myself, just want someone to nod their head in agreement, acknowledge their suffering, just hold a hand and not speak anything. I think we need to be more sensitive to what others need, and when we offer positivity, do so in a way that can’t be interpreted negatively 🙂 It all comes down to good communication 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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