What is Toxic Positivity and How to Avoid It

By: Sharon Dolak

Do you notice that as soon as you walk into the office you are ON? Like someone pushed a button in your head that said, “OK, you are to have no emotions, no needs and you are to be positive, energetic, smile, and bright ALL DAY LONG.”

In a normal healthy life, we are emotional beings. We all have painful emotions and experiences. At any given time, on a continuum, our emotions vacillate from one end to another.

Our emotions, good and bad, need to be felt and dealt with openly.

Affects of Being Positive All Day Long

Now, when emotions are not allowed to be expressed over long periods of time (like a 10-hour day in the dental office) and when culture says that we must always be on the positive side of the emotion continuum and the negative side must be repressed, a painful condition starts.

We become exhausted in trying to be positive. Do this long enough we become deadened inside.

In Pete Walker’s book, “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving,” he writes,

“Without night, there is no day, without work, there is no play and without tears there is no joy.”

Pete Walker

What he is saying is that if we spend the bulk of our day exhausted from being ON/positive only allowed, day in and out for years then we end up in an emotionally lifeless middle ground — bland,  deadened, freeze mode, checked out. Nothing more to give.

When we are not permitted to feel then explore, both good and bad emotions we are led to withdrawal, loneliness, and addictive behaviors. We check out.

Understanding We Cannot Be Positive All The Time

If we can understand this better, and acknowledge we cannot operate at 100%, all of the time, then when the going gets tough at work, we can provide grace and support to one another or self-care to ourselves.

Very few people outside of dentistry, even our loved ones, truly appreciate the demands of being ON all day and working with patients who don’t always value the work we do, are anxious or have a personal problem of their own.

We may try to express our feelings with a spouse or family member that our body hurts or we are feeling unappreciated, bored with no room for growth and we want to make a change. Their response may be something like:

  • “It could be worse, at least you have a job.”
  • “Just think of all the things you can be thankful for.”
  • “Just deal with it.”

These may sound like reassurances, but these are examples of Toxic Positivity rather than empathy. We might even think these thoughts and gaslight ourselves!

The message that these platitudes send is you don’t have a right to be unhappy, your emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical well-being is trivial and the discomfort you are causing others by feeling these emotions, is more important than your need for support.

Toxic Positivity is not a healthy form of communication, nor a sustainable way of living. It is saying that emotions are unacceptable.

How to Avoid Toxic Positivity

 So, what can we do to help our mental health and the mental health of others?

  • Get quiet and notice what you are feeling in your mind and body
  • Allow for time alone to feel and deal with your feelings.
  • Authentically feel and radically accept the emotions you are feeling
  • Practice self-care in a judgement free zone
  • Your emotions are tools that are there to help identify what you need
  • Clarify what you want from the other person. 
  • Allow others to sit with their own sadness, tiredness, and grief. It is how to connect with them by showing true empathy and not rescuing. We don’t need to fix them. True empathy can help them help themselves.
  • Encourage them to take the time to feel and deal with their feelings.
  • Encourage self-care in a judgment-free zone.
  • Clarify what they might need from you.

“For just as without night there is no day, without work there is no play, without hunger there is no satiation, without fear, there is no courage, without tears there is no joy, and without anger, there is no real love.” 

Pete Walker, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving

Photo by Anna Shvets

Sharon Dolak

Sharon Dolak

Sharon Dolak specializes in family and organizational workplace Mediation services at the leadership level and employee relation level, reducing tension and helping people resolve long-term, intractable disputes in their personal or professional relationships. She also is credentialed through the International Coach Federation (ICF) and the Center For Coaching Certification. She can be reached at sharon@sharondolakmediation.com.