Turn That Frown Upside Down—or Don’t

Turn That Frown Upside Down—or Don’t

How to handle toxic positivity

Words by Ashley Locke

When a friend or family member comes to you with a struggle, it can be easy to respond with “Look on the bright side,” “Things will get better,” or “It could be worse!” But sometimes the sunny side isn’t as sunny as you think—and your help might actually be hurting. There’s a name for this: Toxic positivity. It’s the belief that no matter how difficult a situation is, you should keep a positive mindset, a response to negative emotions with reassurances instead of what’s likely truly needed—empathy.

Whitney Goodman, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist born and raised in Clearwater, Florida, has made it her mission to help people recognize and confront toxic positivity in their lives—be it from themselves or from others. “I started my career working with people who were in cancer treatment and their families. There was a pressure on them to be positive and get through treatment—something you had to do to survive and be OK,” she said. “Then I saw that echoing on social media, and it was something my clients brought to me in sessions. I started posting about it online about four years ago, and the conversation continued to grow and change.”

Through her practice, the Collaborative Counseling Center, she serves people across the state of Florida—but Goodman felt like she had something to offer folks outside of her home state. She ended up writing a book—Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed With Being Happy. 

“Toxic positivity is inherently dismissive,” said Goodman. “Recognize when you’re shutting down the conversation and telling people not to feel where they’re feeling.” So, when should you swap your positivity with empathy? Here’s Whitney’s guide: 

Try to avoid using a positive platitude:

  • When someone is crying about something or clearly in the midst of experiencing a difficult emotion.
  • Immediately after a distressing event—such as being  fired.
  • While at a funeral or when someone is dying.
  • When someone tells you that he just wants you to listen.
  • When someone tells you she doesn’t want advice.
  • During an emotionally draining event.
  • When you don’t have a complete understanding of what is going on.

Try to avoid toxic positivity and positive platitudes when discussing these topics:

  • Infertility and pregnancy loss
  • Grief and loss
  • Illness and disability
  • Romantic relationships, breakups, or divorce
  • Family and family estrangement
  • Physical appearance
  • Pregnancy and parenting
  • Racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, fatphobia, classism, or other types of prejudice
  • Mental health issues

Find Goodman’s book, Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy, wherever books are sold.

Follow along with Whitney Goodman on Instagram at @sitwithwhit or on her website at sitwithwhit.com.