Toxic Positivity: The New Issue Plaguing Workplaces

Michael Beausoleil

Want to start feeling better and living a better life? A lot of people will recommend you think positive thoughts and focus on all of your blessings. Believe it or not, there is some merit to these ideas. Being positive can reduce stress and allow you to concentrate on productive behaviors.

Letting in the good vibes encourages people to refresh their outlook on life, but good thoughts can’t make you immune to negativity. Eventually, something will be less-than-ideal and you’ll need to acknowledge something is wrong. Identifying problems can be hard, and it can be worse when you need to provide or receive criticism. As much as people want to be positive all the time, the world doesn’t work that way.

Yet some people want to create an environment where the world only focus on the good and ignores the bad. Welcome to the world of toxic positivity. This is a relatively new term, but a phenomenon becoming increasingly common in offices and social settings. It may be hard to believe, but there are times when forcing positivity into the world can be a bad thing. This can leave individuals with a sense of shame for any expression that isn’t perfectly positive.

The idea of toxic positivity might just seem like a buzzword. In fact, it can have psychological effects on people and lead to a number of other complications. Identifying an overly positive environment might be the first step, but addressing it can be the bigger challenge.

What is Toxic Positivity?

When you’re encouraged to suppress negative, natural emotions, you’re in a position where toxic positivity can occur. Dr. Jamie Zuckerman describes toxic positivity as “the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset,” on Healthline.
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This is not to confuse negative thoughts with depression. When a person feels negativity as a reaction to an unpleasant experience or poor outcome, this is a natural response. In this way, the concept of toxic positivity can be damaging. By forcing a person to only focus on positivity, they are suppressing natural and logical responses.

Toxic positivity is also not a form of optimism. Not everyone is an optimist, but genuine optimism is not dismissive. It will acknowledge a bad event, but view the future with a sense of hope. The positive outlook displayed by an optimist is rooted in a belief that improvement is possible.  Negative events are seen as isolated and can be controlled in the future. While an optimist’s beliefs may not be reciprocated, at least they acknowledge unpleasant situations.

The true issue comes when discussions of negativity are outright ignored or discouraged. It’s one thing to look for silver linings; it’s another to remove concerns and silence negative opinions. When this happens, you’re entering into an area where positivity becomes “toxic” and can have harmful effects.

What Does Toxic Positivity Look Like?

You can see toxic positivity in a number of environments: work, school, with friends, or with family. It becomes particularly difficult when you’re surrounded by people who are impossible to escape. In recent times the concept of “toxic positivity” is most often discussed in a work environment. Especially during a pandemic where many people are experiencing struggles, offices are trying to build environments where workers can escape all of the negativity in the world. Perhaps this is well-intended, but it also dismisses concerns people need to address.
Fake Happy music video by ParamoreParamore / RCA / Fueled By Ramen

During major life events, it’s often easy to identify toxic positivity. If someone breaks up with a partner, you might hear people say “everything happens for a reason” or “don’t worry, you will find someone better!” These messages sound pleasant, but are utterly baseless. They can be applied to a number of situations and almost any person. While uttering one of these clichés a single time is unlikely to be damaging, hearing the same empty messages over and over can become an emotional burden.

In a workplace environment, toxic positivity can come across as dismissive and manipulative. Perhaps you’re evaluating a presentation and your supervisor says to “only focus on the good things.” This supervisor may intend on protecting his employee’s emotions, but he is also creating an environment where feedback is viewed as an attack. At work, you may also see employers replacing preparation with baseless hope. If an employee expresses doubt about completing a task, her manager might say “we always find a way to get it done.” Now, the employee is burdened with unreasonable deadlines and the added pressure of last year’s results.

Words of encouragement may not be toxic positivity, nor is actionable advice. When people live in a world where negativity exists but can be ignored with positive sentiments, they’re bound to doubt their ideas of reality. At this point, positivity has become a toxic trait.

How Positivity Can Hurt

Over time, exposure to “good vibes only” can be harmful. While there is no uniform response to toxic positivity, there are a few common symptoms. This may not be surprising, but they all have something in common: they’re negative.

The most common symptom may be a sense of shame associated with negativity. People who do not have a positive outlook on a situation are made to feel their opinion will cause trouble and ruin the social dynamic. Over time, this can turn into a sense of guilt and make the feeling of negativity more personal. These type of environments can contribute to depression or worsen existing symptoms.

In professional environments, toxic positivity might prevent growth. Feedback from peers and supervisors can help you to identify areas of improvement. It is possible to provide feedback in a manner that is constructive rather than outright negative, but it’s seldom a positive conversation. Only focusing on the positive allows many opportunities to get overlooked.

If you’re trying to build relationships, toxic positivity can be destructive. People are less authentic when they feel you’re not receptive to real emotions. So, they will withhold information and limit their time with certain individuals. Over time, you get removed from the picture if you are not engaging in useful and meaningful conversations.

This is not encouraging people to be negative all the time. However, it’s much easier to identify overly negative language and acknowledge it as a problem. It’s possible to be positive without avoiding issues. This requires a sense of emotional intelligence and an ability to have uncomfortable conversations.

Balancing Negatives and Positives

While the term “toxic positivity” might be newer, it has existed for a while. In fact, acknowledging toxic positivity isn’t a bad thing. This demonstrates a deeper concern with mental health and assigns a name to a common phenomenon.

In recent times, it may also seem there are many psychological conditions appearing in social environments. There’s certainly some validity to this claim, but many conditions can be addressed with little effort. If people are committed to listening to others without discrediting them, they’re likely to build relationships. Rather than only focusing on positivity, they should acknowledge unhappy circumstances. If they are able to provide actionable advice or find ways to be helpful, they’re not being toxic. At the very least, people can learn to admit they don’t have great advice. This is not dismissive, even if it isn’t particularly helpful.

People often do not learn social skills in school. This can make it difficult to navigate an environment where toxic positivity is present. Perhaps the best lesson can be found in math. When you take a negative situation and multiply it with positivity, the outcome is more negativity. If you multiply the negative situation with a little negativity, the outcome can become positive.

This analogy is not a perfect science, but research has shown that the best way to handle negative thoughts includes acknowledgement. Toxic positivity ignores this step, and allows positivity to be a source of negativity.

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Writer, educator, and a few other things.

San Diego, CA

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