This post was originally written and published on March 27, 2022 via Substack.

Toxic Positivity by Whitney Goodman caught my eye shortly before it released, and I immediately preordered it because… well… like many of us, I imagine, I was in an up-close and personal relationship (not a romantic one, I’m happily married) with someone who was suffocating me with what I considered to be the perfect definition of toxic positivity.

But one of the first pieces of text I highlighted in the book was this:

“I thought I’d change everyone around me; instead, I learned the only person I could change was myself.”

I found throughout the book that there are phrases that I’ve uttered at one time or another. Phrases like “Everything happens for a reason” has been in my family for generations. Other phrases we’ve all heard: “It could be worse.” Or “Look on the bright side.” When we utter phrases such as this, we discount the feelings of the person we’re speaking to.

But before we get too far into my thoughts about Toxic Positivity, let’s define toxic positivity. I like Tabitha Kirkland’s definition from this article:

“Toxic positivity is a way of responding to your own or someone else’s suffering that comes across as a lack of empathy. It dismisses emotions instead of affirming them and could come from a place of discomfort.”

That definition describes both: why toxic positivity is bad (lack of empathy), and that it comes from a place that is not entirely filled with bad intention.

Toxic Positivity, in many ways, was like having a therapy session with Goodman as she ran through many real life examples of toxic positivity she’d studied in her own patients. She covered such topics as infertility, mental health issues, racism, sexism, transphobia, grief and loss, and the list goes on.

As you read through this therapy session looking for ways that others have used toxic positivity on you, you’ll start to realize that you, too, are not innocent of using a phrase or two. Can I get a “Bless your heart”?

And while I want to agree with Goodman, that she doesn’t “think anyone actually means to hurt someone with positive phrases,” I have to wonder in a society where most people send more phone calls to voice mail than they actually pick up, or where people are too busy to grab coffee with a friend, isn’t it much easier to dismiss a friend with an “I know how you feel, but I choose to believe everything will be fine,” and end the conversation there? And that’s typically via text, and not with an actual conversation.

A “friend” said something like this to me when I tried to tell her about a mental health issue of someone close to me that I was personally responsible for and desperately scared for. She shut me down, and I realized that I couldn’t trust her any longer with such an issue. Or any issues, I discovered eventually, but that’s probably an extreme example. Not all people will discover this about their “friends”.

This example leads me to wonder about one quote from the book:

“At its core, toxic positivity is both well-intentioned and dismissive.”

But when does toxic positivity cross over into just plain ol’ toxic?

Goodman goes into the history of the “Good Vibes Only” generation and how toxic positivity has seeped into our institutions, like the medical world and in our religious organizations. Anyone ever been told, “God wouldn’t give you more than you can handle”? Or my favorite at funerals, “At least she’s no longer feeling the pain of this world.” Or “She’s in a better place.” The first one is not true. And anyone who says either of the second two phrases doesn’t know if what they’re saying is actually true. These phrases come from a place of discomfort and not from authenticity.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve all witnessed our share of toxic positivity and just plain ol’ toxic. If you haven’t, just head to Facebook or Twitter, where you’ll find more toxic than your mind can handle, and very little positivity. (Actually, on second thought, don’t do that. Protect yourself!)

And we’ve all probably uttered something in the realm of toxic positivity. It’s easy to do if you haven’t studied up on the subject. These are decades-old habits, ones that have been embedded into our brains.

So how do we break this pattern?

For me, it goes back to the original quote of this article:

“I thought I’d change everyone around me; instead, I learned the only person I could change was myself.”

We can’t change others. We can only change how we respond and interact with those around us. And the people close to us deserve our empathy and our compassion.

We can also change who we trust with our own stories, a point Goodman makes in Toxic Positivity.

“The goal of emotional expression is to feel more understood and supported, not to feel worse. This means that choosing when, where, and with whom we share our emotions is extremely important.”

A book that got its start on Instagram, where Goodman posts under @sitwithwit, is worth the read. Toxic Positivity by Whitney Goodman is WAY more than a self-help book, it’s a book for bringing more humanity back into humans.

A little Heather Sunseri writing update. My monthly author newsletter went out yesterday with a free chapter from the next Paynes Creek novel: Danger is in the Shadows.


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