by Chelci Harris on October 3, 2022
Let’s do a self-survey. Are you the sort of person to default to complaining about life, pointing out negativity in other people’s lives, and never trying to change the things you can? Or are you more likely to deflect when people ask you how life is going? Maybe you have a reputation as being blessed and highly favored because you have mastered life through rose-colored glasses. If either of these resonates with you, you have most likely experienced or perpetuated the toxic positivity phenomenon. If you’re not convinced yet, keep reading.
To start, toxic positivity is defined as rejecting or denying stress, negativity, or other negative experience1. What makes toxic positivity so…toxic? I’m glad you asked. First, let’s consider healthy positivity, or “optimism”. The American Psychological Association’s (APA) Dictionary of Psychology defines optimism as “an attitude that good things will happen”2. It is hopefulness. Did you catch that? While toxic positivity seeks to whitewash existing troubles, healthy positivity acknowledges the possibility of a brighter future “in spite of” rather than an “instead of” existing circumstances. Consider King David and his many Psalms. Consider Job. Consider Paul. Consider Jesus. In the Bible, you will find that life happens to everyone because negative experiences are a normal element of post-Eden, pre-heaven human experiences. Not only that, but research states also that negative experiences can even “fuel the processes that promote meaning in life”3. However, to tap into the positive outcome of negative experiences, we have to fully acknowledge them.
In rejecting or denying the existence of a negative experience in life, we miss out on the character development God has for us. We miss out on a testimony. The power of God is in the struggle, too. Just think about it! If the grave had no power, it would take no power to overcome it. If death had no sting, what boast would there be in Christ? Acknowledging our struggles and problems is not an act of faithlessness but rather a step in the faith-building process. We have to see the mountain before we can speak to it and command it to move. God is more than able to handle our reality. It is the pretending that shows a lack of faith. So, instead of invalidating or minimizing your own trials and the struggles of those around you, trade that toxic positivity for more practical approaches to sharpening your neighbor.
Practical Ways to Avoid Toxic Positivity
Try cognitive reframing. Cognitive reframing is the practice of changing one’s perspective about a situation. For instance, maybe your close friend has been repeatedly stating they don’t understand why life has to be so hard and they don’t think living is worth the trouble. You’re right to be concerned and want to steer them away from that dark train of thought. Remind them of their last season of struggle and how they made it through. Recall your history and the encouragement they provided you during your sadness or frustrations. Remind them that their previous painful experiences are a testimony to what God will do in the present and the future.
Just listen and pray. You don’t always have to speak, you know. If you’re worried that what you have to say will do more harm than good. Pause–cut yourself off, if necessary. Think “Is this life-giving or am I invalidating?” If you’re not sure that the former is true for this situation, save your spiel for the Lord and trust Him to speak directly.
Take your own advice. If you believe you could handle a situation with more grace and optimism than the next person, just walk it out. However, this must be done in truth. The word says that “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17). There is power in action, but only if it’s authentic. Can you imagine being a sheet of aluminum trying to sharpen an iron blade? This results in a broken you and a still “dull” friend.
Pricing, M. (2021, September 8). What is toxic positivity? Right as Rain by UW Medicine. https://rightasrain.uwmedicine.org/mind/well-being/toxic-positivity
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Optimism. APA Dictionary of Psychology. https://dictionary.apa.org/optimism
Vohs, K. D., Aaker, J. L., & Catapano, R. (2018). It’s not going to be that fun: Negative experiences can add meaning to life. Current Opinion in Psychology, 26, 11-14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.04.014.