Toxic Positivity and What Do You Mean “Talk about It”?!

Young Black woman talking on phone

How about the direct approach when faced with toxic positivity? Not everyone will be comfortable confronting their supposed-to-be support systems about toxic positivity, but my aim is to give you scripts to tackle it.

But first, a recap. Over the last few days, we learned:

Now, we need to discuss a strategy for calling out and avoiding toxic positivity. That strategy is direct communication. There’s SO MUCH power in direct communication, but people fear it. They don’t want to offend, be a burden, hurt someone’s feelings, be seen as mean, and so on. But indirect communication is keeping us stuck. It prevents us from seeing the gift of direct communication:

A tweet from K. Maldonado, a Twitter user: "Y'all be so use to people being indirect and phony that clear direct communication is aggressive to ya'll chill out [annoyed emoji, face palm emoji]
https://twitter.com/karmaldonado_/status/1246957935969759232

While not everyone is being “phony,” I do think we aren’t being true to ourselves for the sake of others. After all, the best way to be kind is to not hurt other people’s feelings, right?

Yeah, no. I’m not saying we should go around saying hurtful things to others because we can. Instead, I’m saying we cannot control how people feel, if they get offended, or their reactions to what we say. We have no say in how others react. As a control enthusiast and a writer, I want to evoke certain reactions in my readers. I might succeed with some, but others might call bullshit. I have zero control over that. Admitting that sucks.

Also, the desire to be kind is admirable, but what if being direct were kinder?

Not convinced? Say hello to Jordan and Taylor again. Here’s option one:

Taylor: I’ve been feeling really sad lately, and I don’t know why.

Jordan: What? Why? You have it so great! Just cheer up! Don’t be sad! Whatever it is, you’ll get over it!

Taylor, internally: That doesn’t make me feel better.

Taylor, to Jordan: Oh. Yeah. I guess.

That felt sad. Here’s option two:

Taylor: I’ve been feeling really sad lately, and I don’t know why.

Jordan: What? Why? You have it so great! Just cheer up! Don’t be sad! Whatever it is, you’ll get over it!

Taylor, internally: That doesn’t make me feel better.

Taylor, to Jordan: That doesn’t make me feel better. It feels like forcing positivity when I’m not feeling positive.

Jordan: Well, sometimes, you have to fake it to make it!

Taylor: I feel like my feelings are being invalidated with toxic positivity. It’d feel a lot better to be heard and have my sadness recognized. If you’re not in a place to hear me out, I understand. Please don’t minimize my feelings though.

Taylor might feel awkward and anxious, but those feelings are important too. Jordan might get upset, might agree and apologize, or might change the subject. None of that is in Taylor’s control. However, Taylor stood their ground, protected their feelings, set a boundary, and let Jordan know why a certain behavior was unhelpful. Notice Taylor didn’t say, “Jordan, you’re being a jerk.” There is love and kindness in direct communication. It means we want the other person to do and be better.

Notice also Taylor made it about their feelings and not about Jordan’s character. This is not a personal attack on Jordan; it’s the truth about what Taylor is feeling.

Lastly, notice Taylor directly stated “toxic positivity.” We cannot improve our behavior if we don’t have the names and tools to learn. Having the behavior labeled gives us a chance to research (and by research . . . memes?). While we don’t have to force the phrase into the conversation, it does help others to know about the patterns of their behavior.

Here are other approaches if you’re on the receiving end of toxic positivity [with the phrase added for clarity]:

  • It’s important to me to be heard and not disregarded [with toxic positivity].
  • I know you mean well, and I appreciate that. I’m looking for a listener and not advice [or toxic positivity].
  • I need time to feel these feelings [which toxic positivity doesn’t allow].
  • I want you to validate that it’s normal to feel this way [and not respond with toxic positivity].
  • I’d normally ignore this, but I feel compelled to say something [about toxic positivity].
  • It might be uncomfortable, but please just hear me out first.
  • It’s so sweet of you to want to fix this. I want a listener, not a fixer.
  • Can you just hug me?
  • Maybe you could do [X] to help?
  • Could you hand me my stuffed penguin, and gimme a little time to myself? (Yeah, that one’s oddly specific to me.)

If you’re the one being toxically positivity, here’s alternatives:

  • It’s OK not to be OK.
  • Your experiences and feelings are valid.
  • How you feel is important to me.
  • What can I do to help? (I like this more than “how can I help” because it stresses the desire to be given actual tasks.)
  • I might not be able to relate, but I can listen.
  • I’m not sure I can help, but maybe we could find helpful resources together?
  • Ugh, that sucks. What helps you when you feel down?
  • Crying [or snuggling stuffed animals, emotional eating, leaning into the feeling, watching your favorite show] is a healthy way to cope! Want me to join you?
  • I love you!
  • Want a hug?
  • Would time alone help?

My sincerest hope is for us to feel more comfortable with being uncomfortably honest to honor our feelings. I want us to have enough compassion for ourselves that we don’t protect other’s feelings before we protect our own. With that in mind, I turn it to you. What are some things that you might say to someone who is using toxic positivity? What are some things you could say to avoid toxic positivity? Share with me in the comments!

And tomorrow . . . the questions: How has toxic positivity kept you down? How has a culture of toxic positivity kept you from facing the pain of growth? How has American toxic positivity furthered your trauma? What can you do about it?

1 thought on “Toxic Positivity and What Do You Mean “Talk about It”?!”

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