for the times you are holding onto your last thread

The Harmful Effects of Toxic Positivity

A "Good Vibes Only" mindset is harmful to survivors and to those who live with disabilities.

OPINION | by Renee Clark | October 7, 2021 | Updated October 9, 2021

People are hurting today, yet toxic positivity trends seem to be stronger than ever. After all that our country, and this world, has gone through, isn't it time we move beyond living in denial? Can we, at the very least, admit that "everything is (not) awesome"?

Early in October, 2021, my daughter wanted to shop for some clothes, so we went to the local one-stop shop. I walked into the store with her, looked up at a wall, and noticed that toxic positivity was prominently displayed. "Good Vibes Only." "Positive Vibes."

The first thought that crossed my mind was wondering why this store would want to suggest to their customers, many who have lost one or more loved ones recently, that "good vibes only" were welcome there. I thought about the children who no longer have a parent, or may have been orphaned during the pandemic. I thought about the adults who may have lost a child. Or the adults who lost a brother, or sister, or elderly parent.

I was bewildered by the inappropriate timing of the messaging and found myself wandering through the store, emotionally detached - yet, unable to keep my gaze off that wall. I no longer wanted to spend hard-earned money at that particular store. My daughter did go home with one top from the 70% off clearance rack, but that was it. As we were looking, I asked her if she would be willing to shop on Poshmark to help support a family, or small business, who may need the money rather than support a corporate giant that is out of touch with reality.

A big problem with toxic positivity is that trite platitudes and insincere, or overgeneralized, optimism invalidates pain. If a loved one is in crisis, toxic positivity may cause him or her to believe that the emotions they are going through are unacceptable, that something is wrong with them, or worse, that they are unwanted. Toxic positivity generates doubt, shame or guilt. Empathy and toxic positivity are polar opposites. Any attempt at empathy will fall flat while a "good vibes only" shirt is being worn. With empathy lacking, trust can be lost and relationships destroyed.

As a survivor of domestic violence, and someone who lives with heart failure caused by an electrical defect, I find myself avoiding people who reek with toxic positivity. When I meet someone who is trying hard to exude a bubbly, yet unauthentic personality, I have to stifle the urge to bluntly ask "What are you selling?" The fakeness comes across as a sales tactic that would be more appropriate for use on a used car lot.

Toxic positivity has had a strong negative impact on me over the years. A flippant comment of "this too shall pass" after a hospitalization that nearly claimed my life, or "God will never give you more than you can handle". Well, the truth to the matter is, it was more than I could handle. Yes. I survived, but at what cost? My children worry their mother could become sick again. I have not fully recovered, and I wonder if my induced flat-line experience (a.k.a. electrical cardioversion) that the doctors performed, in hopes to reset my heart, messed with my cognitive function. I am much slower to respond these days. The days may have passed, but the challenges have not.

The person on the receiving end of toxic platitudes isn't the only one who may be in harm's way as this mindset is practiced. Toxic positivity can be a sign of avoidance. When painful emotions are suppressed, emotional growth is stunted. Toxic positivity becomes a mask that tells the world "I am okay" even if, in reality, that person is not.

There is hope that education could help change the understanding of toxic positivity. Or, that during this pandemic, people will get tired and frustrated with it. However, real change would require a brave and authentic practice toward understanding one's own emotions, and the emotions of others. We can start with a practice of intentional change in phrasing as we validate painful emotions and open doors to better mental health and healing.