Keeping a good mindset in trying times is a valuable skill that can help you get out of a rut or find the bright side in a situation. But there comes a time when being blindly positive can be harmful or outright toxic. Sometimes, employers will cultivate a “good thoughts only” vibe that can be harmful to actual growth and stifle any needed changes.
Toxic positivity can be well-meaning or it can be intentionally manipulative. We’ll break down what toxic positivity is, signs to watch out for, and ways you can combat it in your own workplace.
What is it?
So how exactly can positivity be a bad thing? Clinical psychologist Lauren Cook defines toxic positivity as “an unwavering devotion to optimism that can minimize or disregard when someone is in emotional pain.” Essentially, you’re expected to ignore and disassociate from any negative feelings and blindly accept a positive outlook as a placebo.
A positive outlook can be great, but you don’t need to invalidate any negative feelings or questions you have. According to US News, a culture of toxic positivity invalidates feelings and experiences, creates a culture of avoidance, and triggers feelings of shame. When you’re being told by outside sources how you should feel about something, you’re either going to be brainwashed into accepting the corporate line or you’ll stuff down those negative thoughts down for fear of how your opinions will be perceived.
“We all have painful emotions and experiences. Those emotions, while often unpleasant, need to be felt and dealt with openly and honestly to achieve acceptance and greater psychological health.” –Kendra Cherry
Conflict is vital for growth, and sometimes we need to have unpleasant conversations in order to arrive at a meaningful conclusion. A culture trying to stifle that is more content with control and status quo than one of growth and value.
Career Contessa’s Danielle Doolen also highlights the difference between toxic positivity and positive validation. If a coworker approaches you after something difficult and you say, “It’ll be fine,” that’s toxic. Positive validation would be acknowledging the problem is difficult and expressing that you’re there for that person.
Signs of toxic positivity
So when does positivity become flat-out toxic? A workplace that can help empower you through hard times is helpful, but when does it become too much?
Kendra Cherry looks at commonly used and often well-meaning phrases like “everything happens for a reason,” “look on the bright side,” or “happiness is a choice” as examples. These are dismissive of your feelings, promote avoidance, and shift blame onto you for feeling negative emotions. The person might mean well but is ultimately taking agency away from you.
Another common example given by Erik Pham of Forbes is always believing things will work themselves out. “Take care of the small problems and the big ones will take care of themselves,” for example. This is a way of avoiding the core of a problem and almost ensures necessary changes won’t be made.
Ways to fight back
So how can you fight back against a culture where problems are swept under the rug of false positivity?
Start by being solution-oriented. There will likely always be something in a workplace that could be done better. Instead of pretending everything is fine, acknowledge that there is a problem and create a dialogue to find a solution. The Muse’s Sakshi Udavant says to ask for ways to offer support or acknowledge feelings and ask what might be done about a situation instead of saying, “Things will improve.”
However, sometimes people simply want a friendly ear rather than a solution. Practice empathy and active listening to find the best way to help your coworkers. Just make sure to validate their feelings rather than provide a meaningless buzzphrase.
Forbes’ Jack Kelly says to be unafraid to set boundaries and to be honest about your feelings. If you’re feeling bullied into a false sense of positivity, don’t be afraid to speak up. Those in leadership roles must be willing to have honest conversations and fight back against the culture.
“Ideally, your employees wouldn’t need explicit permission to take care of themselves. But many people have been trained throughout their careers to see self-sacrifice as a badge of honor. Your team will thrive, though, if you encourage them to take the time to recover, rest, and even just have a bad day. It’s okay to not always be okay.” –Allaya Cooks-Campbell, BetterUp
A positive mindset can have wonderful benefits for work culture and mental health but forcing a culture of toxic positivity creates more problems down the road. Toxic positivity can lead to a burned-out workforce that sits on their feelings out of fear of being ostracized. Be watchful of the language you use and make efforts to have open and honest conversations whenever possible. Conflict can lead to growth, and most problems require an active solution to be sought.