A few weeks ago, I was having a bit of a rough day. So I did what most of us do when we’re feeling a little blue: I called a friend.
Well, more like an acquaintance. Someone in the podcasting space who understands what it’s like to bang your head against the wall with an annoying PR agent or fight to land a big guest. I had only spent a few minutes trying to describe what I was struggling with when he jumped in.
“Listen, man,” he said. “I’m gonna save you some time here. What you’re going through — it’s character-building. You’re feeling down right now, but that’s just a mindset.”
“I guess,” I said. I hadn’t even been able to pin down what I was frustrated about, and he was already pitching me on a solution. And not a particularly meaningful one.
I tried to make myself a little clearer, but a minute later, he interjected again.
“Look,” he said, his voice loud and cheerful. “If there’s a source of negativity in your life, cut it out. Life’s too short. And you gotta stop thinking of all this as a burden. What it really is is a test!”
“Right,” I said, feeling a wave of frustration wash over me.
“‘Cuz ultimately, your mood is a choice. You’re bigger than these feelings.”
“And every challenge — it’s actually an opportunity. Life doesn’t give you more than you can handle, I promise you that. Trust me, it’s all working in your favor.”
We talked for another couple of minutes, then I ended the call.
I wandered downstairs in a fog, feeling even worse than when I picked up the phone. I told my wife about the conversation, and it only took her a few minutes to understand why I felt the way I did.
I had called a friend looking for empathy and insight, and all I had gotten was vague wisdom and a dose of positivity.
But was it positivity?
It sure sounded positive. I know my friend was trying to meet me in a spirit of positivity. But the result didn’t feel positive at all.
In fact, it felt kind of like the opposite.
That’s because what I got that day was a unique species of positivity.
A kind of positivity that is so simplistically, unthinkingly, relentlessly positive that it actually becomes invalidating, demoralizing, and basically meaningless.
What I had encountered was toxic positivity.
What is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity is the philosophy that a positive mindset is all you need to navigate, survive, and make sense of life’s challenges.
It’s an outlook that imposes a stubbornly positive lens on every situation, without authentically and accurately responding to the true nature of the world and your experience of it.
Ignoring difficult facts, suppressing unpleasant feelings, spinning traumatic experiences, appealing to larger forces, and justifying objectively bad events by fixating on silver linings that might or might not exist — these are all common forms of toxic positivity.
But as Whitney Goodman, author of Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy, points out, positivity itself isn’t toxic — it becomes toxic.
And it becomes toxic when people respond to the difficult stuff of life — the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, a professional setback, the end of a relationship, mental health challenges — not with empathy, curiosity, and compassion, but with dogged optimism.
“They did you a favor!”
“This isn’t that bad, that’s just a story you’re telling yourself!”
“The universe has your back!”
If you’ve ever heard platitudes like this during a crisis, then you’ve encountered the toxic strain of positivity. (Toxic positivity is basically the BA.5 variant of the “power of positivity” movement.)
But here’s the thing: It’s not that there isn’t a kernel of truth to these statements, or that they aren’t useful in some way, or that they won’t be true eventually, one day, when the storm passes.
Of course it helps to roll with the punches.
Of course we co-create our realities with our thoughts.
Of course we can help ourselves be more optimistic, get out of our own way, and look for opportunities and upsides — and we should.
But when someone responds to your adversity by jumping to the most optimistic, “enlightened” conclusion — missing or even invalidating your experience in the process — then this impulse to empower and comfort becomes toxic.
In fact, I’d argue that toxic positivity is closely connected to hustle culture, that other problematic self-help movement. Those dudebros you see producing “motivation porn” videos for YouTube, those #girlboss fitness influencers slinging empowerment advice on TikTok — they’re also peddling some version of toxic positivity, even if they’re dressing it up as empowerment.
This stuff is insidious, it’s seductive, and it spreads like wildfire online. Partly because it’s so transmissible (it’s easier to share an eight-second TikTok about “releasing negativity” from a breathwork teacher named Luna (hi/sorry Luna) than it is to do nine months of rigorous therapy with an actual licensed clinician), and partly because toxic positivity speaks to some of our most profound wishes and vulnerabilities.
But I’ll get back to that in just a moment.
Forms of Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity can take many forms — some overt, some subtle. Sometimes toxic positivity is the centerpiece of a certain belief system (such as motivational seminars or feel-good self-help groups), and sometimes certain aspects of a curriculum or teacher can take on toxic elements.
However it shows up, common forms of toxic positivity include:
- Engaging in oversimplification (“This isn’t as complicated as you’re making it,” “You’re just feeling down right now,” “everything will work out in the end, you’ll see”)
- Gaslighting/denying reality (“Things aren’t as bad as they seem,” “You say you’re anxious, but really you’re just afraid to take a chance”)
- Denying or minimizing difficult facts and feelings (“You’re telling yourself a story about what’s happening,” “Things aren’t as bad as they seem right now,” “Stop fixating on your fear and start focusing on your potential”)
- Imposing a happy/optimistic/cheerful narrative on an objectively painful situation (“This [insert horrible experience here] is really an opportunity,” “Every loss is a lesson in gratitude”)
- Feigning confidence/conviction/determination when they’re not supported by the facts (“It doesn’t matter that your company’s bankrupt, you can will yourself to succeed,” “All you need to win this person over is the belief that you’re valuable”)
- Appealing to spirituality, enlightenment, or other vague sources of comfort/wisdom (“When God closes a door he opens a window,” “The universe has your back,” God is testing you”)
And these forms of toxic positivity can be applied to (wielded against) ourselves or other people.
As Goodman puts it in her book, toxic positivity tells people how to feel instead of helping them deal with what they’re actually feeling.
It reaches for the most comforting or satisfying perspective, rather than offering a space and a process for someone to arrive at the most helpful perspective for themselves.
And it prioritizes a “desirable” emotional state (happy/safe/evolved!) or narrative (the world is good/this is an opportunity/I am enlightened!) over the much more important experience of actually, you know, processing your feelings and acknowledging reality.
Toxic positivity never really helps. It usually just puts more distance between ourselves and our experiences (and between ourselves and other people’s experiences).
But when this brand of positivity inevitably fails us, we tend to blame ourselves. We think that we just weren’t optimistic enough, enlightened enough, or motivated enough. We double down on the idea that we just need to be more positive, and the cycle repeats.
It’s no surprise, then, that so much self-help makes us miserable.
The Impact of Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity, even when it’s well-intentioned, is unproductive at best and damaging at worst.
Instead of giving you a more accurate, authentic, nuanced understanding of yourself and the world, it limits your experience to a very narrow band of thoughts and feelings — the ones we label “positive,” which might or might not even be true.
The result is constrained thinking, blunted emotion, and overly simplistic reasoning. And those rarely lead to better decisions, relationships, or outcomes.
As Goodman points out, when we turn to toxic positivity, we’re usually shutting down the exploration of a thought or feeling by jumping to a belief that feels safer.
(Just as cults use thought-terminating clichés to get people to stop thinking critically, toxic positivity uses “feeling-terminating aphorisms” to get people to stop having authentic responses to life. There’s an interesting parallel there.)
That, in turn, makes it harder to accept the realities of life — the challenges as well as the joys — and disempowers you from making well-informed decisions based on the full range of data about a situation.
Engaging in toxic positivity also makes it harder to connect with people and build meaningful relationships.
We can only understand and empathize with others to the extent that we can understand and empathize with ourselves. When toxic positivity cuts us off from our own experiences, it also cuts us off from identifying with someone else’s.
Buying into this kind of thinking also keeps us locked into a single ideology, a limited worldview.
We know that life is complex and that it contains all kinds of experiences — good and bad, helpful and unhelpful, tragic and joyful (and often serves them up at the same time).
But when we automatically impose a positive narrative on every situation, we’re putting blinders on. We’re missing — deliberately ignoring — the full story, which is always more useful than cherry-picking the facts that suit our positive agenda.
The other flaw in the rhetoric of positivity, Goodman points out, is the idea that people are just one positive thought away from changing their lives.
While that can be empowering for some, she says, it can also be dangerous for people who have experienced objectively terrible events, or have been victims throughout their lives.
By “empowering” them to tap into their positivity, positivity practitioners are often implying that everything that happens to them is their fault, or has happened because of a flaw in their thinking — which, of course, is invalidating, unhelpful, and often wholly inaccurate.
The net result? An inner experience that’s unclear and deadened, a view of life that’s less nuanced and accurate, and a relationship to the world that’s less intimate and more superficial.
All of this explains why I felt the way I did after that phone call. I had been positivity’d by a hardcore positivity practitioner, and was basically steamrolled by his #goodvibes in a moment where, more than anything, I just needed a present friend. Needless to say, our relationship has only grown more distant since then. Not because I’m nursing a grudge against the guy, but because I know I can’t really rely on him for reliable advice in a high-stakes situation.
But if toxic positivity is so obviously problematic, the question becomes…
Why is toxic positivity so attractive?
The answer, to put it very simply, is that it’s comforting and easy.
Toxic positivity offers a way to cope with — or simply ignore — facts and feelings that are messy, complex, and uncomfortable. Many people prefer to hide from those experiences, and encourage other people to hide from them as well (even if they don’t realize it). Facile interpretations and comforting bromides are a great way to do that.
But there are some more specific “benefits” to reaching for ideologies like this, and they’re worth unpacking to see how they might be operating in your life.
The illusion of control
As Goodman explains in her book, toxic positivity gives us a false sense of control over a chaotic world. Many people think that if they can just cultivate enough optimism, they won’t feel as disorganized and disempowered.
What happens instead, ironically enough, is that they end up feeling even less control. Feigning optimism or trusting that a larger plan is unfolding (or whatever the toxic belief happens to be) simply replaces the unwanted chaotic thought with another thought, which is usually just as flimsy. Toxic positivity doesn’t give you any new tools, skills or mindsets to take on your life in a more productive way. It just props up the architecture of your mental-emotional state with another (usually not very substantive) concept.
As Goodman points out, grasping at control through a positive belief usually leaves us disappointed, empty, and ashamed.
Disappointed that the positive belief didn’t work.
Empty, because we haven’t filled the psychological gap with any new insights.
And ashamed that we put so much faith in a belief that didn’t really deliver — and that we’re now even less equipped to manage our struggles, which just creates even more shame.
Interestingly, toxic positivity doesn’t just fail to give us more control over our lives. It actually shifts the responsibility for our lives to outside sources — other people, systems, policies, energy, chance, or “the universe.”
As Goodman explains, toxic positivity tends to let you off the hook. It suggests, explicitly or implicitly, that you don’t really have to do the hard work of confronting your feelings, making major changes, or acknowledging uncomfortable truths if you want to improve your life.
And let’s be honest — that can feel like a huge relief. Life is hard. Being responsible for our experience can feel crushing. So entrusting our results to someone or something else can feel liberating. It’s not — but it can feel that way.
Toxic positivity also lets you off the hook from dealing with someone else who’s going through a tough time.
You don’t have to relate to them, bear their emotions or help them through a difficult time if you can just tell them to “focus on the positive!” or “choose to be happy!” Positivity then becomes a way to opt out of the demanding work of meaningful relationships.
Obviously, this rarely leads to better outcomes. Shifting responsibility might feel good sometimes, but it’s ultimately disempowering. After all, how can positivity empower us when it also suggests that the ability to change our lives is somewhere “out there?”
But when toxic positivity fails, its proponents can always blame the practitioner — which is yet another form of dodging responsibility.
If someone doesn’t get the job they wanted, you can argue that they “just didn’t manifest their goal” or that “the universe has something better in store.”
If someone struggles with grief for a long time, you can point to the ways in which they “indulge their negative feelings” or “miss all the upsides to loss.”
If someone wrestles with depression, you can point out that they’re “choosing to be victims” or “telling themselves an unkind story.”
These interpretations aren’t just invalidating and insensitive, they’re actually damaging. And they exempt positivity practitioners from confronting another difficult fact, which is that toxic positivity is often useless — to themselves and to the people they impose it on.
Toxic positivity doesn’t just offer a comforting philosophy. It also creates a seductive identity.
As Goodman explains, toxic positivity taps into our most idealized selves — the person who’s easygoing, low-drama, resilient, enlightened, self-sufficient, and invulnerable. This is the person we’d like to be, but know deep down we aren’t. (Spoiler alert: No one is, all the time. Except for Luna the breathwork teacher, of course. Girl be slaying on the ‘Tok.)
Sadly, for many people, the goal is not to be happy but to appear to be happy — and toxic positivity creates that illusion pretty well. (Once again, social media has only magnified this illusion, which is highly damaging.)
But these self-concepts come at a steep cost.
For one thing, they cover up our authentic personalities, which — although it doesn’t always feel this way — are always more effective and meaningful.
For another, false self-concepts are a recipe for anxiety, depression, and burnout. Being something you’re not is exhausting. It’s hard enough to be anxious or depressed or afraid. It’s even harder to pretend that you’re not.
In other words, toxic positivity creates an identity that traps us in a life of pretending.
Pretending to be hopeful when you’re disillusioned.
Pretending to be abundant when you’re lacking.
Pretending to be enlightened when you’re hurt.
More often than not, toxic positivity urges us to skip over the crucial work of acknowledging and processing these thoughts and feelings in order to appear a certain way — in other words, to satisfy our egos.
When in reality, we’d probably get a lot further if we just accepted how we really feel at this moment, removed any conflicting self-concepts, and acted from there.
This brings us to one of the most problematic aspects of toxic positivity.
One of the seductive aspects to positive thinking is the way it encourages us to fast-forward through — or even leapfrog — acknowledging tough realities and processing difficult feelings.
Rather than confront an uncomfortable feeling or explore a difficult idea, spiritual practitioners will often short-circuit that important process by appealing to the (supposedly) higher-order wisdom of a spiritual framework.
Once again, because it’s comforting. Spiritual bypassing gives us a (very short-lived, very weak) boost of empowerment. It offers an escape hatch from disappointment and struggle. And it gives us one more reason to avoid the hard work of sitting with difficult experiences.
Common examples of spiritual bypassing include:
- Fixating exclusively on the upside or silver lining of a difficult situation (“This trauma is here to teach me something,” “I should be grateful for the opportunity to grow”)
- Believing that your spiritual development should exempt you from difficult experiences (“I’m too enlightened to let this bother me,” “Feeling pain is a spiritual failure”)
- Justifying suffering by deferring to the wisdom or authority of a higher power (“God will never give me more than I can handle,” “This is a test,” “Everything happens for a reason”)
- Using spirituality to detach yourself from difficult experiences (“Being spiritual means not feeling [insert negative emotion here],” “I can meditate my way out of this feeling”)
- Clinging to an impossibly idealized version of yourself (“I’m ‘above’ my feelings,” “I’m not the kind of person who gets caught up in egoic thinking”)
- Believing that accepting a “negative” fact or feeling is a weakness or a mistake, and that only positivity can solve a problem (“I can’t fall prey to limited thinking,” “All I have to do is reframe this loss and I’ll be fine,” “This is an opportunity to manifest the solution”)
As we saw earlier, these forms of bypassing can be applied to ourselves or to other people.
Sometimes we bypass to spare ourselves the discomfort, and sometimes we tell other people to bypass to help them spare themselves the discomfort. Or, as is often the case, to spare ourselves the discomfort of their discomfort. This spiritual bypassing thing has a lot of uses!
But I have to pause here for a moment to acknowledge that some of these spiritual concepts do hold water.
It is helpful to look for the upsides within adversity.
It is important to strive for the “highest” version of yourself during a setback.
It is effective to be optimistic, to not wallow in self-pity, to reframe challenges as opportunities.
So I’m not saying that spiritual wisdom is total garbage, or that turning to spiritual concepts during tough times is always self-delusion.
But when you use spirituality to shut parts of yourself down — to avoid rather than to resolve, to transcend rather than engage — that’s when this lens becomes problematic.
As Goodman puts it, if a practice or a belief feels empowering and helpful — great, more power to you.
But if you notice that a practice or belief is suppressing a part of your personality, making you feel ashamed, or silencing your true feelings, then that’s a sign that something’s off.
Then you’re not empowering yourself — you’re probably just invalidating your experience. And that usually ends up creating other problems, including:
- Suppression and repression of emotions (which only reinforces them)
- A sense of alienation, isolation, and loneliness
- Disempowerment and lack of control
- Weaker emotional intelligence and psychological tools
- An impulse to hide (and to hide yourself) from people and situations
- Intellectual and spiritual narcissism
- A weaker sense of agency and personal responsibility
- A less realistic, grounded, meaningful experience of the world
Interestingly, the best spiritual teachers understand that human beings tend to use spirituality in this way, and advise against it.
They encourage people to move deeper into the reality of their lives, not to deny it. They teach the value of fully experiencing their feelings, not pretending that they’re “above” them. They might encourage people not to indulge their negative thinking or construct an identity out of their suffering, but that’s different from saying that they’re above or exempt from suffering.
In fact, one of the common threads of all legitimate spiritual traditions is the essential role of suffering in personal development. We can’t evolve without experiencing loss, grief and adversity — the very things toxic positivity encourages people to avoid.
An alternative to toxic positivity
So what is the solution? Is there an antidote to these dangerous forms of positive thinking? And is there a way to be positive without falling into the trap of toxicity?
The answer is yes. And it calls for a new approach to the difficult experiences of life, and a better definition of the term “positivity.”
First, we have to…
Seek to understand and validate people’s experiences.
As we’ve talked about, toxic positivity doesn’t acknowledge people’s true thoughts and feelings. It glosses over them, invalidates them, and subsumes them into a larger “positive” plan.
In Goodman’s view, the antidote to that philosophy is to seek understanding and validate what someone else is going through — the good and the bad.
Seeking understanding, according to Goodman, means asking meaningful questions, listening, and figuring out what’s really going on for them.
Questions such as: “What are you struggling with right now?” “Is there anything you want to talk about or work through?” “What’s the hardest part of this experience?”
Validating the other person means mirroring their words back to them, taking their thoughts and feelings seriously, and affirming their experiences as real.
Helpful validating statements include: “That makes sense,” “That sounds really hard,” “I’m sorry you’re going through that,” and “I understand what you’re describing.”
(Of course, you actually have to mean these things. If you don’t, then this could just be another form of toxic positivity. Intention and sincerity are crucial.)
When you really work to understand another person and validate their experience — or to understand and validate yourself — you pierce through the veil of toxic positivity.
You create a meaningful exchange that allows for greater insight, reflection, and authenticity. You don’t reach for simplistic ideas or convenient philosophies to comfort someone or explain away a difficult experience. You don’t prioritize a specific outcome over the quality of the relationship. You don’t let yourself or the other person off the hook for doing the hard work. You do something much more important, which is to be there with another person in their experience. (Or to be there for yourself in your own experience, as the case may be.)
But that approach also means that we can’t pick and choose the facts and feelings that serve our agenda. In fact, we have to…
Engage in radical acceptance.
Toxic positivity, as we saw, encourages us to “cherry-pick” the experiences that fit a comforting narrative. We willfully blind ourselves to the difficult parts of life, depriving ourselves of a realistic assessment of our situations. That, of course, makes it much harder to generate good insights and make intelligent decisions, because we’re not working with an accurate picture of the world.
The antidote to that approach is to acknowledge the full spectrum of our thoughts, feelings, and experiences — the tragic and the joyful, the shameful and the desirable, the painful and the pleasurable.
This, in a nutshell, is known as radical acceptance.
As Goodman explains, radical acceptance is a much more productive, meaningful relationship with life. We’re not selecting the bits of reality we find convenient; we’re accepting all of it, including (and especially) the so-called “negative” stuff.
But accepting difficult material doesn’t mean we’re resigned to being miserable. On the contrary, it means we’re better equipped to improve our lives.
As Goodman points out, when we acknowledge negative experiences, we’re not necessarily endorsing them. We’re just saying, “This is the reality of my situation, and I’m going to figure out what I can do within that reality.”
Then we’re in a much better position to understand what we can actually influence and control, and what we have to accept and bear.
This is the opposite of toxic positivity, which creates an alternate reality built on a limited set of facts — a more comforting narrative imposed on top of reality that doesn’t accurately reflect it. The way to cut through that worldview is to open up the aperture and let more of life in, without editing out the parts that make us uneasy.
Which also puts us in a new relationship with the facts of life themselves.
Expand your definition of “good” and “bad.”
Toxic positivity encourages a very narrow definition of what a “good” thought, feeling, or experience is.
Experiences that feel pleasurable and cohere with our preexisting beliefs are usually considered “positive,” while experiences that create pain or challenge preexisting notions are usually considered “negative.”
But that framework ignores the fact there’s no such thing as a purely good or bad experience.
All “good” experiences create new problems, and all “bad” experiences contain the seed of something positive. This is one of the most fundamental laws of life.
You get fired from your job — which is objectively difficult, sometimes terrifying — but you’re now free to reimagine your career, recalibrate your interests, and pursue a more meaningful job.
Or you get promoted at your job — which is obviously very gratifying — but now your stress is through the roof, you’re managing people you don’t like, you have no time to see your family, and on top of all that, now you’re worried about losing your job.
You fall in love and get married — wonderful! — but now you’re in a partnership that will inevitably go through tough times, sadness, and conflict.
Or you get divorced — which is painful — but now you have an opportunity to study your patterns, reconnect with yourself, create your own identity, and meet a more compatible partner.
I could go on, but you get the point.
Life isn’t a monolithic thing. It’s everything, across the spectrum, all at once — inspiring and draining, pleasurable and painful, fascinating and dull.
The thing is, our minds are very adept at labeling situations as good and bad. But that lens is largely informed by our histories, our conditioning, and our patterns. In many cases, we’re not even accurately identifying good and bad; we’re just responding to “familiar” and “unfamiliar.” Sometimes the truly good thing would feel terrible, and the truly bad thing would feel comforting. That’s why we can’t always rely on our conditioned definitions of good and bad in the first place.
And yet toxic positivity teaches that we should buy into these monolithic labels and only prioritize the “good.” To acknowledge the bad would be to fall prey to “negative” thinking and sabotage our best efforts.
But as we just saw, the “good” that toxic positivity fixates on always contains some bad, and the “bad” that toxic positivity avoids always contains some good. And even “bad” experiences can still be meaningful and helpful. Oftentimes, they’re essential. In fact, we know (and the research confirms) that suffering, in the right amount and with the right mindset, actually teaches us more than succeeding does.
So does this obsession with positive thinking reflect the world in any meaningful way?
If you want to break out of toxic positivity, you have to first let go of the idea that only positive experiences are valuable. Then you have to let go of the idea that there’s even such a thing as a purely positive or purely negative experience.
A much more useful view of the world is to be in touch with both polarities.
To recognize the objectively terrible stuff about a bad situation and to identify the silver lining.
To channel your energy into an exciting opportunity and to accept that that opportunity will create new problems.
To enter a new relationship, job, country, project, goal, or hobby, and to be willing to confront the upsides and the downsides that it serves up — and hold them alongside each other as you navigate your feelings.
As Hamlet (not exactly a poster boy for positive thinking) famously said, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
That might be a tad simplistic, but it gets at a very profound point: the way we think about the world — the beliefs we impose on it — determines so much of how we experience it.
The more you engage with life beyond these simplistic labels, the more you can radically accept, the more accurate your view of the world will be, and the more connected you’ll feel to yourself, to other people, and to life as a whole.
After that, you have to actually do something about it.
Reinforce genuine positivity through action.
Toxic positivity fails because, at the end of the day, it’s just promoting a set of ideas.
These ideas — that staying positive will always lead to success, that losses aren’t as bad as they seem, that the universe has your back — start to crumble when you don’t find evidence that they’re true.
That’s when the doubt starts to kick in — “Ugh, this stuff doesn’t actually work! What was I thinking?” — and you either sink into total despair (which is a story just as incomplete as total positivity), or you double down on the toxic positivity, setting yourself up for even greater disappointment down the road.
As Goodman points out, there’s a pervasive belief in our culture that we can convince ourselves to believe something simply through our thoughts. But as a therapist, she’s come to understand that if you’re not backing up those thoughts with action, they’re never going to be true.
This is a crucial point, and it’s one that toxic positivity evangelists don’t talk about very much.
If you’re trying to manifest a new job by affirming your talent, believing that you’re valuable, and trusting in the world to serve you opportunities, those ideas won’t do much good if you’re not actively applying to jobs, investing in your skills and reaching out to new people.
If you’re trying to live a healthier lifestyle by saying that you love yourself, that you value your body, and that you have the discipline to get in shape, those beliefs won’t help you if you’re not actually eating well, getting enough sleep and working out regularly.
And if you’re trying to grieve a loved one by placing your healing in the hands of a vague external power, believing that you deserve to be happy, and trusting that new relationships will come along, those concepts won’t get you very far if you’re not actively working through your loss, processing your feelings and investing in new connections.
Ideas alone don’t secure results.
Ideas alone don’t create reality (no matter what woo-woo manifestation experts say).
Ideas are necessary but not sufficient conditions for change.
For positive thinking to have an effect on your life, you have to apply it through action. You have to make these ideas real in everything you do. You have to generate results that confirm that the ideas you hold actually serve you (or that they don’t, which is often just as helpful).
If you believe that every trauma is an opportunity to grow, then take that idea into therapy, into your reading, into your goals, and into conversations with other people who have been through tough times.
If you believe that all people are inherently good and ultimately want what’s best for you, then try to meet as many new people as you can, treat them the same way, stick with the ones who reciprocate your value, and find out what they have to teach you.
If you believe that life (or the universe, or god, or whichever word you prefer) never gives you more than you can handle, then show up to your obligations with that assumption, weather the storm with that faith, and find out how much you can really handle.
In all these examples, you might find that the positivity principle was actually true. Not because it was an attractive idea, but because you made it true through your actions. And your actions generated data that confirmed that the principle held water.
That is a much more grounded relationship with your optimism than the one that toxic positivity promotes.
Toxic positivity seems to suggest that we can’t complain about our problems, because that would be falling prey to “negative thinking.” But complaining is actually an essential and productive activity — if you do it the right way.
Goodman talks about this in her book too, and it’s one of the best practical antidotes to toxic positivity. According to her, there are three basic steps to complaining effectively.
First, you have to identify the problem at hand.
Ask yourself: “What am I really worried about here? What are the facts? What’s happening beneath the surface of my complaint? What is leading me to want to complain in the first place — and to complain to this person specifically?”
Second, get clear on the desired outcome.
Ask yourself: “What do I want to happen here? Do I just want to vent and have somebody listen? Or do I want to actually explore solutions and fix the problem?”
(Side note: This question is a game changer in life and a superpower in relationships. My wife and I constantly ask each other this question whenever we’re worked up, and it always leads to better conversations. We don’t wallow in venting mode if we’re ready to fix a problem, and we don’t jump to solution mode if we’re not done processing. Tons of miscommunication can be avoided by asking this question. Come to think of it, so could that phone call I told you about at the beginning of this piece! Dammit, I wish I had read this piece before I knew I had to write it!)
Third, figure out what it will take to achieve the desired result.
Ask yourself: “Who or what can help me get to the mental-emotional place I want? Am I going to the right person to vent or to problem-solve?”
If you go through these steps before reaching out to someone, complaining will become much more satisfying. You won’t be indulging pointlessly negative thinking, but you won’t be shutting down productive venting, either.
And as Goodman points out, this will usually lead to less complaining overall, because you’ll be more efficient and self-aware when you choose to do it.
The result of all these approaches? A much healthier, more sophisticated, more productive brand of positivity — a sort of anti-toxic positivity. Let’s call it grounded positivity.
Grounded positivity in action
Almost five years ago, I was abruptly kicked out of the company I had spent over a decade building and lost my old show. It was, without a doubt, the worst chapter of my life.
… Well, sort of. Because like most setbacks, it was actually a huge gift in retrospect. I lost my business, but I gained my freedom. I lost my identity, but I got clearer on the person I wanted to be. And in that period, I had the opportunity to build a brand new show of my own and to chart my own path, which has been nothing short of incredible.
Now, that probably sounds dangerously similar to the toxic positivity we were just talking about. “Every loss is an opportunity!” “When God closes a door he opens a window!”
And to be totally candid, many people gave me a lot of toxic positivity BS when I vented to them during that time. Some were qualified to give me good advice; others weren’t. Learning who was who was extremely helpful.
But the way I learned to move through that loss was actually the opposite of toxic positivity. Looking back, it was a great case study in grounded positivity.
For one thing, when I found out I had been fired and that I was losing the old show, I had to come to terms with that loss in a very real way. I couldn’t just “look for the silver lining” (there was no silver lining in those first few weeks). I couldn’t “trust the universe to have my back” (the universe was sending me mortgage statements and lawsuits). I couldn’t “be grateful for the opportunity to grow” (I was stunned and paralyzed for a good week, unsure what to do next).
Instead, I had to radically accept what was happening.
I had to acknowledge the incredibly painful truth that I had lost my livelihood, my calling, and my relationship with my audience.
I had to admit how hurt, angry, and defeated I was.
I had to admit that in many respects, things were pretty damn bleak.
Toxic positivity would have told me to disregard those feelings, because they weren’t “helpful” or “productive” or “enlightened.”
But I knew that I couldn’t process what had happened if I didn’t get in touch with those feelings — all of them — especially the unpleasant ones.
But in the mix were also a few new feelings — excitement, determination, a glimmer of hope. They were quieter in the beginning, but they were there, faintly, in the background.
And that was empowering too: to know that I could feel injured and determined, devastated and inspired, daunted and hopeful.
Rather than telling myself a story about my situation — or a story about how my most idealized self would respond to my situation — I just looked at the facts. And the facts were that there was a lot of bad, and some good, and now I had to make a choice about what to do next.
So I got off the couch and started making some moves. For the next year, I worked like hell to rebuild my show, piece by piece.
I reached out to my network, which I had spent years and years building long before I needed it, and found a world of support.
I booked a ton of guests on my new show, appeared on dozens of other shows myself, and rebuilt my connections with my listeners (many of whom followed me to the new show, seeing that I was putting in the work to find a path forward).
I brought my entire team with me, invested everything I had into the new podcast, and continued working on my skills as a host.
I put one foot in front of the other and kept showing up in the hopes that I could rebuild — even when I didn’t feel 100% hopeful.
In the process, I found myself growing more optimistic that things would turn out all right. Some days I even felt like the universe really did have my back.
But I didn’t assume that idea from the outset because it was comforting. I proved that it was the case by checking things off my to-do list. I applied my positive thinking in every interview, every guest appearance, every article, every piece of advice, and found that they generated results that confirmed my burgeoning optimism.
Then, about six months in, I realized something pretty remarkable: I was grateful. My worst nightmare was actually the best thing that ever happened to me. I had known for years that I had to chart my own course, but it was only when life forced that outcome on me that I had the courage to embrace it. (Or, to be more accurate, I didn’t have a choice.) And after talking to tons of people who have been through serious loss, I know that’s a pretty universal discovery.
But here’s the thing: Toxic positivity would have told me to will myself into that gratitude from the very beginning. The day I got fired, a toxic positivity practitioner would have told me to be thankful for the most traumatic experience of my life. I would have bypassed all this valuable work and missed the thoughts and feelings that make me who I am. And I would have been totally in denial of the reality of my life.
So yes, in hindsight, losing my company was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Yes, I’m grateful for the experience.
Yes, I know that it “had” to happen, in some weird mysterious cosmic kind of way.
But I sure as hell wouldn’t want to go through it again.
Because all the upsides to weathering the storm didn’t make the experience fun. They only made it possible. And they made it meaningful.
I’m much better off now, for sure, but I wouldn’t want to do it again. I’d prefer to have just done things differently earlier on. But life doesn’t work that way, does it?
What I’m saying is that you can be grateful for an event and wish that it never happened.
That’s one of the interesting paradoxes that only makes sense when you break out of the limited viewpoint of toxic positivity.
The other paradox is that you don’t always need to feel positive to be positive.