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How to Resist Toxic Positivity


On a rough day last year, I was walking outside when an unfamiliar person on the sidewalk caught my glum expression and said something I hate hearing: “Come on, smile. It can’t be that bad!” Rather than share my true thoughts with this individual who knew absolutely nothing about me, I kept walking. It is one thing to be positive; it is quite another to make someone feel bad when their feelings exist for important reasons. When people steamroll our feelings under the guise of trying to cheer us up, it can make things worse. More times than anyone cares to count, we have been on the receiving end of toxic positivity. While facing our challenges by finding ways to manage them productively is a worthy goal, shoving feelings aside (ours or someone else’s) is not helpful. How do we know where the line is? Here are some signs that behavior masquerading as support is unhealthy so that we can recognize them and stop toxic positivity in its tracks.

Validation is Key           

Years ago, I had a friend who asked for constant validation. Almost every sentence she uttered ended with either, “You know what I mean?” or “Do you think that was okay?” As irritating as I found this habit, I realized that it came from a place of deep-seated insecurity on her part. What if instead of taking her concerns seriously, I would have said, “Stop being such a drama queen all the time. You’re fine!” My friend would have felt awful, and I’m guessing that our relationship would have ended then and there. When people are sitting in a state of negativity or hopelessness, the worst thing we can do is act like it’s all in their heads. If I have a mountain of papers to grade, it doesn’t really help to hear, “Just stop worrying, sit down and get it done.” Obviously, that is something that has crossed my mind, but my mental state at that moment is not one of productivity. Instead, what I need is some sensitivity and maybe a practical idea like, “That is way too much work to face all at once. Maybe it would help to take a break and then divide the pile into chunks so it’s not as overwhelming.” When our dark moments are met with understanding and perhaps just one useful suggestion (expressed with acceptance, not judgment), we can have better conversations that don’t become poisonous.


In the deepest throes of a crisis, I remember crying to a friend who kept trying to tell me how to fix my problem. At one point I stopped him. “I don’t want you to try and repair this,” I said. “I just need you to listen right now.” Our definition of being helpful is often grounded in perceiving that talk is action when nothing could be further from the truth. Listening is golden, and it’s rare. When we are feeling low, we can try being clear with our friends by saying something along the lines of, “I’m about to share a lot of negative thoughts with you. If you could, please just listen to me. I’m verbally processing this and looking for an ear.” With that desire expressed up-front, people are far less likely to scramble for solutions that make us feel as though our own feelings don’t deserve airtime.

Be Real           

After a meeting I led last month, I asked for feedback, as is my usual practice. Someone shared, “Not to be negative, but I really have nothing useful to take away from this experience.” At first, I was upset. The truth hurts, and we all know it. How do we take those honest moments and parlay them into a process that doesn’t reflect toxic behavior? If someone shares a hurtful thought or idea, we do not have to pretend to be fine. We can say something simple, like “Ouch.” That expresses the important idea that even if a comment isn’t received well, we can still be nice about how we talk to one another. However, once we acknowledge our hurt, it becomes more possible to go about trying to avoid repeating our mistakes. For example, I made sure to analyze how useful the tools were that I provided and make some changes, and now I hope for better results moving forward. We can be real about what is upsetting while still making progress.

Express Hope           

Right now, I am doing my best to help my daughter with her transition to middle school. I remember my own less than wonderful experiences at that age, and I know that telling her it will be better someday isn’t enough. However, I make sure to remind her that one of life’s dual-edged swords is that nothing lasts forever. Just because someone is feeling wonderful (or awful) during a period of time does not mean it is a permanent state of being. We can acknowledge hurt and negativity and still maintain hope for the future. If a colleague comes to us full of frustration because the last several days’ worth of planning time has been interrupted with class coverage duties, we can agree how stressed out they must feel and still help them hope that things will change. Now that children ages 5-11 are being vaccinated, for example, quarantine urgency might slow down and there may be less need for emergency substitute coverage. It is completely possible to be positive without veering into toxicity by maintaining our grip on reality while also striving to keep hope alive.            

When we see someone in physical distress, it is not considered okay to brush aside their feelings. For example, I wouldn’t respond to a friend falling on an icy spot and moaning by saying, “You’re fine!” with a smile. When people are in pain, whether physical or mental, we need to validate their experiences and help them in a way that is welcome. Sometimes that means just listening to what they have to say or providing one tiny suggestion. However, it is never okay to pretend that their experiences are not important, and we destroy trust when we engage in toxic positivity. As we move forward through this month of gratitude and thankfulness, reminding ourselves to remain positive without being dismissive is a vital step to keeping it together at the start of this holiday season.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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