Always Looking On The Bright Side In Tough Times Can Cause 'Toxic Positivity,' Therapist Says

Jul 29, 2020

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2020 has been a difficult and upsetting year so far. The coronavirus pandemicpolice killings of Black people, reckonings with racism and a militantly divided electorate ahead of the presidential election have some people looking for bright spots. But it's possible to go too far in that optimistic search for a little good news.

It's called "toxic positivity," and it's more than just being happy and optimistic.

Junice Rockman, a neuropsychotherapist with the Central Texas private practice JRocktherapy, defines toxic positivity as overgeneralizing a happy outlook in a way that causes "denial, minimization and invalidation of authentic human experiences."  

Toxic positivity is pretty recognizable in action, like when a person who hears about someone else's struggles responds by saying, "You'll be OK. You're strong." Not acknowledging the other person's pain completely "dismisses that person’s experience," Rockman says.

She says there is nothing wrong with positivity, as long as it is not used to:

  • deny
  • disconnect
  • disregard
  • disassociate, or
  • dismiss someone else’s ideas.

People engage in toxic positivity for a variety of reasons. When people are overwhelmed with experiences or emotions, they sometimes "lean out" as a coping mechanism.

Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman believes shedding the bad habits around "toxic positivity" means getting comfortable with our own discomfort and pain so we can be with others as they experiences these things.
Credit Courtesy of Junice Rockman

“Sometimes people lean so far out that they begin to disconnect,” Rockman says. Or, when they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing in a difficult situation, they "either don't say anything or they say something that's really out of touch."

People can overcome toxic positivity in their relationships with others by first improving their relationship with themselves, she says.

"The extent that we can be comfortable with our own discomfort, with our own pain, with our own disconnection, with our own trials or trauma," Rockman says, "we can also extend that to other people."

Listen to the interview below or read the transcript to learn more about toxic positivity and how to keep optimism and reality in balance.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Neuropsychotherapist Junice Rockman: It's more than just being happy. It's more than just optimism. Toxic positivity is when there's an overgeneralization of the happiness, the optimism. [It’s] this general state of being that results in, and needs to be connected to, this negative result, which is denial, minimization and invalidation of authentic human experiences.

KUT: Can you give us an example or two of what toxic positivity might look like or sound like?

Rockman: When someone says, “This really difficult thing just happened to me,” and then someone responds and says, “Oh, well, at least you now know X, Y and Z.” Or, “At least it’s better now than later.” I've literally just flat out seen people say, “You'll be OK. You're strong,” you know? And it dismisses that person’s experience.

KUT: During times like right now — the coronavirus pandemic is continuing, and there's a lot of difficult news about ongoing discussions and awareness about racism — what's wrong with some positivity?  

Rockman: There's a list of about 10 cognitive distortions. One of the things on the list is all-or-nothing thinking. It's like a pendulum. It has to be all one thing or not. It's helpful for us to move away from that all-or-nothing thinking. It doesn't have to be either-or. It can be both.

We can still sit with someone in the seat of their pain and can still acknowledge what they're feeling and can still let them have authentic experiences. We can still practice the art of not giving unsolicited advice and feedback and getting more curious about someone's perspective. And at the same time, offer positivity and spaces for gratitude in balance.

Positivity as a whole is a great thing, by the way. As long as we're not doing one of these five things – so long as we're not using the positivity to deny, to disconnect, to disregard, to disassociate or to dismiss someone else’s ideas. So if we're not doing that, then, yay for positivity.

KUT: What happens to the other person in the relationship or the relationship itself if one of the people is exhibiting toxic positivity and employs some or all of those “D’s?”

Rockman: I think that the other person often will feel very much invalidated, unheard. In some instances, I've seen where folks have discussed feeling re-traumatized or re-abused, so to speak, because the silence felt shaming.

In other words, the lack of acknowledgment around what they were saying felt like silence and that produced a chain reaction. It can feel isolating. So, it's not a safe place for me to share what I'm really experiencing.  

KUT: What's going on when somebody employs toxic positivity?

Rockman: When the brain and central nervous system become inundated and flooded, we basically have a coping mechanism that kicks in when we lean into that feeling and that emotion, or those experiences, or we lean out. And sometimes people lean so far out that they begin to disconnect.

On the other end of that, from a clinical perspective, there are dissociative disorders where people as a coping skill get into the habit, the patterned way of behaving and behavioral thinking that’s really maladaptive in that they have as a habit depersonalization. They're an outside observer in their life. They don't feel things, not just emotionally. When I work with clients who experience this, they also don't have a lot of feeling in their body somatically. It's because they learn to shut down those parts of themselves because at some level, they felt it was too difficult.

And then on the lighter side, sometimes people just don't know what to say. They don't know how to handle it, and they don't want to say the wrong thing. So, therefore, they either don't say anything or they say something that's really out of touch with that toxic positivity.

KUT: What are some things that people can do when they're confronted with difficult or tough information from someone if they feel like they can't think of something to say or they're worried about saying the wrong thing?  

Rockman: I think this is where we have an opportunity as human beings to let go of our ego, to let go of the idea that we have to know it all and we have to do it all perfectly. And if nothing more, it's absolutely appropriate to say, “That sounds like that was really tough. How was it for you?” Or, “Gosh, I cannot imagine. Tell me more.”

I think the “let me know if you need something” almost feels a little cliche. I think that oftentimes for people that are struggling with grief or loss or depression or sickness, there is a certain amount of shame that comes with needing help anyway. More often than not, they’re not going to reach back out if they really do need something. So I do think that to be more specific to say, “Have you been eating? Would you like some food dropped off? Would it help you to have a conversation or Zoom call? You like coffee?” You know, that kind of thing. Something specific, because then they can say yes or no very specifically.

KUT: Is it possible to retrain our brains to focus on a different, more appropriate response or look for something else to do besides over-the-top positivity or inappropriate responses?

Rockman: One of those things is just to be able to sit, to be able to literally get comfortable sitting in spaces where we feel a little uncomfortable and get comfortable sitting with a little silence. We don't have to fill every gap in conversation with a response or a laugh or comment about the weather.

Part of that means we also have to retrain our brain to get comfortable with sitting with ourselves. Because I think to the extent that we can be comfortable with our own discomfort, with our own pain, with our own disconnection, with our own trials or trauma, is the extent that we can also extend that to other people.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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