Raise your hand if you have ever heard “Well at least . . .;” “It could be worse;” “Look on the bright side;” or other expressions that are offered in response to real negative emotions. You’ve likely been on the giving or receiving end of phrases such as these, which means you’ve experienced what is called toxic positivity.
While it is well-intentioned, toxic positivity suppresses emotions. That can lead to stronger negative emotions, such as anxiety and depression, which can also manifest as physical illness. Experiences of toxic positivity are not limited to well-meaning friends and family. It’s also increasingly taking hold in the workplace as leaders lean into optimism in the face of massive COVID-19 economic and social impacts.
The phrase toxic positivity means only focusing on positive things while ignoring, suppressing, or avoiding anything that may trigger negative emotions. This invalidation of real feelings of fear, anxiety, and sadness can take a toll on mental health. Accepting emotions, on the other hand, has the opposite effect. A 2018 study found that accepting negative emotions and thoughts without judging them (a key piece of the practice of self-acceptance) is linked with greater psychological health.
When toxic positivity occurs in the workplace, it is often triggered by fear of negative energy permeating the team. It happens when people in an organization are discouraged from saying what they are really thinking and feeling. The result is that people start to withhold a lot of their own thoughts and feelings, creating high levels of emotional labor (projecting one set of emotions while actually feeling others). The first casualty of this type of environment is trust.
Humans intuitively know if there is a disconnect between what someone is saying and what they are actually feeling. While you don’t always know exactly what is going on, your built-in radar signals that something is off. When this happens, you come to the conclusion that you can’t quite trust what this person is saying to you at that moment.
Toxic positivity can also ramp up triangulation. If, for example, a leader focuses on getting teams to be positive and is not actually listening to what people are struggling with, then that person who is struggling will start talking to others instead of going directly to the person who could help them solve the challenge. When healthy conflict and honest conversations are discouraged, business performance and results will suffer.
Toxic positivity shows a lack of compassion, something that leaders need to exhibit now more than ever in these turbulent times. When someone is feeling upset about something and your response is “try to be more positive,” you are basically communicating to that person that they are wrong for feeling what they are feeling and for being open with you about what they are feeling. This denies, minimizes, and invalidates authentic human emotions. This is the opposite of compassion.
Referencing the current crisis, consulting firm McKinsey noted:
“When people exhibit fear and a desire for protection and self-preservation, compassionate leaders validate those feelings as normal. Instead, provide safe workplace forums for stakeholders to express emotions. It will help individuals move past pain, stress, and anxiety, and refocus on their work and the organization’s mission.”
The workplace antidote to toxic positivity
Positivity and real human connection emerge by honoring someone’s experience of the world and really hearing what is true and real for them. Humans want to be heard and understood. Active listening is the most effective way to do that.
There are two levels of listening for validating emotional experience. The first is to ask anyone who is struggling to tell you more and help you understand. The second way is to paraphrase back what you are hearing them say and what you are hearing that they feel (“It sounds like what you are feeling is . . .” or “What I hear you saying is . . .”).
To avoid toxic positivity, you want to make sure the person truly feels heard and validated for whatever it is they are feeling. This allows them to go through the natural bell curve that emotions follow, process the negative emotions, and move through them. After this happens, the discussion can move to talking about solutions and what you can do to help. At this point you can also be intentional about shifting the focus away from what the person feels they are losing or what they feel is painful to the recognition that every single change has both gains and losses. Ask them what they see as the potential for benefit or gain in the situation.
Another key antidote to toxic positivity is honesty. Being transparent and truthful, having the data to back up what you are saying, and trusting what you are saying provides reassurance that will be perceived as very genuine—because it is.
Disney Pixar’s movie Inside Out captures the importance of leaning into emotions and avoiding minimizing or dismissing negative emotions. Movie director and cowriter Pete Docter told Slashfilm, “There are so many books on how to be happy and what you need for happiness and you want that for your kid too. We literally tell our kids ‘Don’t be sad,’ and yet there is a real value to all the other emotions that is part of the richness of life, and it’s not until you really recognize that [that] you really have the ability to connect with the world in a deeper way.”