When I was pregnant last year, people constantly asked me, “Are you excited?!” Which, with all due respect, is a dumb question in almost any context. I waffled between giving the answer people wanted (“Yep, can’t wait!”) or the truth: I was delighted to be having a baby, but no, I was not excited. In fact, I was dreading the aftermath of birth — the part when everything hurts, your body is unrecognizable, and you have a tiny fragile infant attached to your bleeding nipples around the clock while you cling to sanity. I wished I could just fast-forward through those early months of motherhood.
Whenever I did mention this, most people said something like, “Oh, it passes quickly,” or, “At least you didn’t gain 80 pounds like I did,” or, “But you’ll have an adorable BABY, so it’ll be worth it!” The only person who didn’t was Michelle, my best friend from high school, who — conveniently for me — is also a gifted therapist. Instead, she paused and said, “Yeah, that sounds terrible.”
As soon as she said it, I felt calmer. Not better, exactly — I knew the postpartum bleeding and exhaustion would still come for me (and they did). But there was comfort in having her validate my apprehensions instead of glossing over them or telling me how lucky I was. I’ve since learned that there’s a name for the latter: toxic positivity, or the act of brushing off a person’s negative emotions with “look on the bright side” platitudes.
The term was popularized by Whitney Goodman, a psychotherapist with a large Instagram following and, as of February, a whole book on the topic: Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed With Being Happy. “The core of toxic positivity is that it’s dismissive and it shuts down the conversation,” she writes. “It effectively says, ‘Nope, that feeling you’re experiencing, it’s wrong — and here’s why you should be happy instead.’” It also implies that you need a “good enough” reason to be sad, worried, or distressed — and shames you for not meeting that criteria.
When I talked to Michelle about this, she pointed out that toxic positivity has been around forever — we just didn’t always have a buzzword for it. “Intuitively, I think I always knew that there was something cruel about responding to someone that way,” she says. “It’s great to have a label for it, but the downside is that it can also be a callout.”
It does feel a little finger-pointy to deem a well-meaning comment as “toxic.” Most people don’t intend to be hurtful when they say stuff like, “Hang in there. You’ve got this!” Or, “I promise it will get better. And your hair looks fantastic!” I would know because I’ve texted both of those lines to friends in the past week (one was dealing with a shake-up at work; the other was having a rough reentry after maternity leave — and had gotten new bangs that really did look awesome). In each case, I genuinely meant what I said and was trying to lift their spirits. Thinking back, though, I wonder if I was actually helpful. Maybe I was annoying. Or even worse, perhaps I was minimizing their concerns.
Why do we react like this — swatting away each other’s worries almost by instinct? Part of it is conditioning: Society teaches us that putting positive vibes out in the world attracts them back, like a happy boomerang. Plus, sometimes people really are looking for reassurance and good energy. I have days when all I want is for someone I love to give me a pep talk or distract me with a cat video and then send me on my way.
A more problematic reason why we dismiss other people’s concerns is that many of us are uncomfortable with difficult feelings. “Most responses that we would label as toxic positivity are actually based on the responder’s anxiety about certain emotions,” Michelle says. “They’re a defense mechanism.” In other words, we attempt to say the “right” thing so that we can all move onto easier topics. But if you really want to empathize with someone, you need to meet them where they are, she adds. “If we focus on increasing our own tolerance for these more unpleasant emotions, we can connect with people who are experiencing them and help them feel less isolated.”
Goodman argues that emotions shouldn’t even be classified as positive or negative. Instead, she writes, “There are only emotions that are harder to experience or that cause more distress for certain people, and the more you suppress those emotions, the harder they are to manage.” These feelings include sadness, anger, and fear — which are not inherently bad. They are part of a biological mechanism that helps you identify things that are threatening, upsetting, or need attention, like a blinking “check engine” light. And when someone else disregards those feelings, it’s harmful (or toxic) to your relationship as well as your mental and physical health, says Goodman.
So, what to do when that happens? You can’t confront every instance of toxic positivity — it’s too pervasive. And it’s probably not worth your energy to lecture your overly perky co-worker or platitude-spouting aunt on the merits of tolerating hard emotions. “But I think when it comes to a spouse or a close friend or a parent, you might think, It’s going to be really hard for me to get support from this person if I don’t talk to them about this,” says Goodman.
Instead of telling people that their behavior is toxic, try to redirect them. “You can acknowledge their wish to be helpful, and then say something like, ‘What I would really like is this.’ Don’t be afraid to spoon-feed people what you need,” says Michelle. “Thinking that My friends should know me isn’t a great rule. You should always assume that asking directly for what you need is the best thing to do.” (Goodman has some more examples of how to do this here.)
It’s also tricky to be on the other side, trying to figure out what a friend needs in a tough moment. I’d like to think that I know better than to shower someone with platitudes when they’re in a crisis, but sometimes I’m just not sure how to react. Do I offer to listen? Send a Seamless gift card? Text them cute videos of my 9-month-old baby trying to eat a chickpea?
“Everyone wants a black-and-white chart that tells them when positivity is toxic and when it’s not, but it’s so nuanced, and it depends on the timing and the person,” says Goodman. If you’re not sure, you can experiment. “Sometimes with clients, I’ll say, ‘I’m going to try something and if it’s not what you need, tell me.’”
Ultimately, your goal is to communicate honestly and with empathy. “You’re not always going to give your friend the right thing, and they might be angry,” says Michelle. “That’s why having a tolerance for challenging emotions is so important.” Like that time she told me that being postpartum sounded awful? “That was actually a risk — it could have pissed you off or made you feel worse,” she says. “But it was authentic, and I’m glad it landed.”