toxic positivity

7 Signs of Toxic Positivity and What to Say Instead

Today’s post was written by iMOM Content Manager Abby Watts.

While I was going through my divorce, if I had a dollar for every time someone told me, “Don’t worry. You’ll find someone else,” it would’ve covered all my legal fees. My husband (the new one, because, well, those people were right—I did find someone else), lost his daughter to cystic fibrosis in 2015. He heard “she’s in a better place” so much it turned his mourning into anger. And when a friend lost her job last year, her Facebook feed was flooded with comments about something better being “right around the corner.”

All of these are examples of toxic positivity that came from kind, well-meaning people. I’m sure I’ve dished out my own fair share in an effort to encourage a friend or make an uncomfortable moment less awkward. But what we need to remember is that these words can actually hurt the people we offer them to. Here are 7 signs your positivity could be toxic and what to say instead.

7 Signs of Toxic Positivity

1. You minimize other people’s experiences with “feel good” statements.

Examples: Don’t worry, be happy! Good vibes only! God won’t give you more than you can handle.

2. You try to give others perspective instead of validating their emotional experience.

This leads to alienation and disconnection. When my husband’s daughter passed away and people said “she’s not in pain anymore,” he felt alone, like no one understood his sorrow.

Examples: First-world problems. It could be worse. At least you had that time with him/her.

3. You shame or chastise others for expressing anything other than positivity.

Examples: You should be grateful for that. Being negative doesn’t help anything.

4. You mask your true feelings.

Example: I didn’t care anyway.

5. You try to move on by dismissing an emotion.

Expressing emotions, negative ones included, helps the body regulate stress. By dismissing negative emotions, we’re standing in the way of handling that stress.

Example: I shouldn’t have let that get me so upset.

6. You make yourself feel guilty for your negative emotions.

Examples: So many people have it worse than me. Why can’t I just be grateful?

7. You brush off things that are bothering you with an “it is what it is.”

Pause before speaking and ask yourself if the words are for the other person’s comfort or yours.

How to Stop Toxic Positivity

A huge step in the right direction would be to pause before speaking and ask yourself if the words you’re about to say are for the other person’s comfort or yours. It’s awkward and difficult to just sit in a painful moment with someone, but sometimes that’s the exact place we need to be.

What to Say Instead

  • If your friend tells you his dad’s cancer has metastasized, don’t say, “I’m sure he’ll beat it.” Say, “I’m really sorry. I know that’s not the news you were hoping for. I’m here if you need anything, even just to listen.”
  • When your family pet dies, instead of telling your kids, “Be glad we had her for as long as we did,” say, “This is really hard. I’m grateful that we have each other. How are you feeling?”
  • When your wife gets passed over for a promotion, swap “everything happens for a reason” with “sometimes we don’t get what we want and it stinks.” Then ask, “How can I support you through this?”
  • When you feel like you’re failing as a dad, instead of “just stay positive,” tell yourself, “My feelings are valid. Parenting is hard.”
  • Nothing. Just listen.

Sound off: What has your experience been with receiving toxic positivity?

Huddle up with your kids and ask, “When others tell you they’re sad, how do you normally respond?”