Toxic positivity. It’s the new buzzword for the year, it seems. Our DMs and emails have blown up with questions about toxic positivity in grief recently. Is this an example of toxic positivity? What is the difference between positivity and toxic positivity? If I’m focusing on gratitude, is that actually bad? Is positivity hurting my grief? If positive psychology is good, why is positivity bad? Is toxic positivity real?
It’s confusing, I know! We’re going to try to clear up some of the questions here. But in case you make it no further than this sentence, let me make one thing very clear: all positivity is NOT “toxic positivity” and positivity is NOT bad in grief. In fact, it can be really important. Now, I hope you’ll keep with us, but at least we have that out of the way.
What is “toxic positivity”
There is no singular definition for ‘toxic positivity’. It isn’t a psychological or academic term. But there is a pretty well agreed upon gist: toxic positivity is promoting the ideal or goal that, no matter the circumstances, one should always and only maintain a positive, happy or optimistic mindset. As a griever, I am sure you know what we’re talking about. No matter your loss and it’s devastating grief aftermath, you’ve probably heard plenty of people encouraging you to just “stay positive”, “focus on gratitude”, “look on the bright side”, etc.
Why does it seem like suddenly everyone is talking about toxic positivity?
Good question. The “good vibes only” attitude is not new, so on the surface it may seem strange that it is only gaining notoriety (and strong social media push back) lately. Though I can’t say for sure why this is, I have a strong feeling 2020 had a little something to do with it. For the first time, we as a collective society were going through something terrible. All of a sudden all of those “just be positive” and “what you believe is what you’ll manifest” social media images started looking *pretty* obnoxious and tone deaf.
Now, we grievers have been yelling this from the rooftops for quite some time now, I know. We’ve been trying to explain that we can’t positive-vibe our way out of grief, often to a crowd of friends saying things like, “you’re amazing, you’re strong, you’re going to land on your feet, just get back to the gym and think good thoughts and you’ll be back to normal in no time!”. It felt like they would never “get it”. Until 2020, when suddenly some people started to understand why this language wasn’t useful. It turns out being amazing and thinking good thoughts while taking a walk doesn’t solve everything.
Positivity is not a dirty word (and not all positivity is toxic positivity)
Now, I have to be honest. On the one hand, I’m thrilled there is a new recognition that it isn’t helpful to tell people their problem is that they just aren’t being positive enough (and if they were they would have already manifested their best life). On the other hand, I think there is a danger that all this hype around “toxic positivity” puts us at risk of ignoring the incredible, evidence-based value of positivity. We don’t want this to be a situation of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Here is the thing, toxic positivity encourages us to ignore or deny things that are hard, painful, overwhelming, difficult, confusing, etc. It says, “ignore the storm, focus on the rainbow. And even if you don’t see a rainbow, pretend you do. If you pretend long enough and hard enough, a rainbow will finally appear. And if it doesn’t, it must be because you weren’t trying hard enough”.
But here is the thing about rainbows – they require the storm. (Man, normally we hate rainbow analogies around here. Sorry, but it just kind of works in this case). They don’t require us to deny the storm, ignore the storm, or avoid the store.
Regular-old-positivity, it allows us to acknowledge the storm. Regular positivity creates a space where we recognize that life can be both ugly and messy and hard and dark and complicated. But, at the same time, it can also have moments of joy, hope, gratitude, and optimism. In our darkest moments, this kind of positivity is hugely beneficial and research has shown us the benefits of positivity in grief, time and again.
Positivity in grief
Toxic positivity in grief tells us grief is a dirty word and our goal should be to put a smile on and get back to “normal”. When you stop and think about it, it really is an unreasonable task. It is asking you to repeat and believe something when there is clear evidence to the contrary. “Life is great!”. We can only say that and try to believe it for so long before wanting to scream “my husband is dead! Life is not great!”.
Positivity in grief allows us to say, “my life has been shattered, it will now never be the life I wanted, expected, or hoped for. But that doesn’t mean it will never be joyful, meaningful, or purposeful again”. Positivity allows us to say that sometimes we can feel hopeless and hopeful all at once. Sometimes we can feel total despair and still find small moments of gratitude. Sometimes we can say, “I have no idea how I am still surviving. But, I am grateful I opened my eyes this morning. I got out of bed and I am going to do it again tomorrow”. Positivity does not ask us to deny the problems.
Humanity is about feeling the full range of human emotions.
We have said it 100 times before. We will say it 100 times again: emotions aren’t good or bad, they just are. Yes, what we DO with those emotions can cause us trouble. But it is crucial that we allow ourselves to experience our feelings, the hardest ones and the easiest ones. It is equally important that we feel we can express those emotions without someone telling us to stop being so negative.
In his book, A Liberated Mind, Steven Hayes (founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, one of our favorite types of therapy) says, “psychological flexibility is the ability to feel and think with openness, to attend voluntarily to your experience of the present moment, and to move your life in directions that are important to you, building habits that allow you to live life in accordance with your values and aspirations. It’s about learning not to turn away from what is painful, instead turning toward your suffering in order to live a life full of meaning and purpose.” Needless to say, Hayes was calling out “toxic positivity” long before it was cool.
He reminds us that our suffering is often part of what allows us to move toward our purpose and meaning. Learning to be with our suffering while still taking actions that are consistent with our values is the stuff of living.
Well-being is not about happiness. It is not even about everything being well.
Another psychology guy we love around here is Martin Seligman. In his book “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding for Happiness and Well-Being“ he makes an important distinction between happiness and wellbeing. He says that those who live with the ideal of a happiness principle focus just on increasing happiness (satisfaction) while eliminating things that detract from it. He suggests, in a world filled with things we cannot control that may decrease happiness and satisfaction, that it is crucial that we look to our well-being. This is about our relationship with our thoughts and feelings.
A sense of well-being, he says, is not just about having positive emotion. Rather, he says it is about a life that also includes engagement, relationships, meaning and purpose, and accomplishment. These things will not always be easy or bring us a sense of happiness. There will be moments of devastation and despair. But a strong sense of well-being will allow us to sit with those emotions and have confidence that they are not a failure, but a part of life; they are storms we will weather, with faith in our ability to survive.
Toxic positivity can come from the inside.
Though there is a lot of hype about external messages of toxic positivity, we can internalize these. Many times in grief we tell ourselves we should ignore the difficult stuff, focus on the positive. We may try to distract away from the hard emotions, looking to keep busy. We might become hyper-aware of gratitude, growth, and strength. The key is balance. Listen for the voice in yourself that might be pushing you to avoid and push back. Remind yourself that there is not only space for the hard stuff and the positive stuff, but we are most honest and human when we feel both. When all else fails, watch/re-watch Inside Out to remind yourself that we need to feel all the feelings (thanks Pixar!).
Toxic negativity can come from the inside too.
It is an all too common symptom of grief to want to stay in our deepest, darkest pain. Weird, I know. But sometimes we think our pain is the only thing that connects us to our loved one. [It isn’t]. Sometimes we think our pain is the only reminder to us and those around us of how important our loved one’s life was. Sometimes we can start to feel comfortable in our pain.
In these instances, we buck against all positivity, not just toxic positivity. We think if we acknowledge and positivity it means forgetting our loss. Remember, positivity and pain can live side by side. Neither cancels out the other. Finding hope, gratitude, or positivity never takes away from the significance of our loved ones life, death, or our grief. Instead, that positivity allows us to know that we can bring our loved one and our grief with us as we move forward in a life with meaning and purpose.
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After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss goes on sale September 27, 2022, but you can preorder at the following retailers: