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Now Is Not the Time for Toxic Positivity

Responding to pain and trauma with positivity may cause more harm than good.

by Tonya Russell
July 13, 2020 | Love

2020 is beating us all up. 

People are getting sick, losing loved ones, losing jobs and risking their health to fight for basic human rights and equal protections. And, despite our best intentions, we're often left unsure of how to support others who are experiencing such pain and loss.

Encouraging someone in a bad situation to think positively is great, unless the gesture invalidates their pain. When that happens, it's toxic — and toxic positivity has no place in today's climate.

"The symbol for something toxic is a skull and crossbones, which can be a powerful visual metaphor to depict toxic positivity," said therapist Ginean Crawford.

"The infusion of positivity into a human who is experiencing trauma is an attempt to introduce a foreign body. This toxic invasion can strip the person of the reality of their current humanity, simplifying their pain and stripping to the metaphorical bones." 

Simply put, responding to someone's pain with positivity is not helpful, and it can actually be harmful. 

Toxic positivity in the time of coronavirus

We've all witnessed instances of toxic positivity, and have likely been guilty of spreading it ourselves.

For example, those who've recently been encouraging others to "look on the bright side," or who incorrectly point out that 99% of infected people will recover from COVID-19, miss the fact that more than 134,000 Americans have already died, and many more will be lost in the coming months.

Between the fear of contracting coronavirus and continuously having to avoid others who ignore social distancing and mask guidelines, it's easy to understand how high-risk individuals and those with high-risk loved ones may be experiencing increased levels of anxiety during the pandemic.

This struggle is all too familiar for Adrienne Dalessio, an avid runner who has had to limit her social interactions and group runs for the sake of her immunocompromised husband. Like many runners, she's disappointed about race cancellations while also processing her lack of motivation to keep up her fitness routines.

"It's easy for someone to get lost down the rabbit hole of comparing oneself to another," Dalessio said. "Such as, 'Oh that person never has a bad run,' or 'Wow, she is running 60-mile weeks. I should be doing that, too.'"

Dalessio would like to see some of these relentlessly positive and optimistic people let down their facade and admit the struggles that they too are likely facing. 

"Acknowledging real-life problems, bad runs or even that they are blessed to handle high mileage weeks right now could go a long way in helping someone else," she said.

"For the sake of my followers, I try to be true to myself. I never try to pretend things are perfect, and I'm open about my current struggles with running. I feel sharing these moments could potentially help others." 

The toxic positivity of "All Lives Matter"

We continue to witness the killing of unarmed Black people, often at the hands of authorities. Protestors have also been risking exposure to coronavirus to push for long overdue reforms in policing and racial justice.

People who aren't Black or brown may not understand the frustration that is felt when another person of color — who could easily have been their father, sister or cousin — is gunned down and, as often happens, justice is not served.

Sign outside a church in support of Black Lives Matter. Rewire PBS Love Toxic Posivity
Telling a person of color that "all lives matter" can undermine and invalidate their pain.  |  Credit: Adobe

These people may also bump up against the Black Lives Matter movement and criticisms of police, and they might feel the need to remind others that all lives matter and that most police are good. Social media feeds are plagued with messages like "focus on the good cops" and "most people aren't racist, so focus on that." 

These statements undermine and invalidate pain, according to Crawford. She likens the situation to misguided attempts at supporting someone who is grieving the death of a family member. 

"I have counseled many people who have lost loved ones, often children. Some were told, 'At least they are in a better place,' or 'You can always have another child.' They weren't talking about another child. They wanted that one," she said. 

"This is akin to telling someone in the Black community who lost someone that all lives matter. They weren't talking about other lives. They were talking about that one."

Lean into your discomfort

Well-intentioned, but ultimately unhelpful, positive statements generally seek to placate the listener and not the sufferer.

"Being unable to be with someone in their pain or fear without making it better, is less about the sufferer and more about the discomfort within the listener to sit with the pain and hold the space," Crawford said. 

"Being present with someone and witnessing their pain is one of the most intimate human experiences." 

Instead, Crawford recommends that listeners lean into their discomfort.

"This means being with it exactly how it is, and how it should be. Give it the space it needs instead of wrapping it in clothing that does not fit," she said. 

She also suggests reframing statements of support in a more productive way, such as: "Words pale in comparison to your loss or what you are experiencing. I have no idea what this is like for you right now, but I am here with you through this, however you need, whatever you need."

Many of us may be unaware of the impact of our words when we encourage others to find the bright side to suffering. Crawford cautions us to temper the urge to spread toxic positivity in these situations. 

"While beauty can come out of ashes, it may not be the sentiment to offer when one is still on fire," she said.

Tonya Russell
Tonya Russell is a freelance journalist with a passion for wellness, mental health and culture.
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