How to spot and stop toxic positivity

The term toxic positivity has been around for a while, but what is it and is it really that bad? I chatted to Kim-Lee Wentzel Ricketts, Industrial Psychologist, to demystify it for us.

What is toxic positivity?

It is an obsession with positive thinking. It is the belief that people should put a positive spin on all experiences, even those that are profoundly tragic. It furthermore refers to the denial of negative emotions. There is also pressure and expectation to “stay positive” when you’re experiencing a crisis which not only invalidates your emotions but actually forces you to censor them.
Instead of asking for support and help, you end up pretending everything is fine. Toxic positivity can lead to guilt and shame, bottling what you experience.
Toxic positivity assumes that a positive mindset is the only one worth having. You are either a cheerleader or the one who drags everyone down. Over-the-top positivity is the need to express only the emotions that others will find acceptable.

The dangers of it in the workplace

Toxic positivity can especially be seen to be harmful in the workplace as it can make individuals feel invalidated, unseen and unheard. It can lead to an environment where employees are disengaged and not motivated. The pressure to be productive may also leave many people feeling inadequate and ashamed that they are simply trying to make it through the day without a panic attack, anxiety or crying spell.

Recognising toxic positivity in the workplace

The way that toxic positivity shows up in the workplace is through minimizing other people’s experiences with “feel good” quotes or statements; trying to give someone perspective (e.g., “it could be worse”) instead of validating their emotional experience; brushing off things that are bothering you with an “It is what it is”. It can be a comment to “look on the bright side” or “be grateful for what you have.” Toxic positivity can also show up as a meme that tells you to “just change your outlook to be happy.” It can be a friend who repeatedly posts how productive they’re being during lockdown. It can be your own feelings that you shouldn’t dwell on your feelings of sadness, anxiety, loneliness, or fear.

Tips on avoiding it in the workplace

  1. Set healthy boundaries.
  2. Avoid ignoring or suppressing your emotions.
  3. Listen and validate how others feel — even when it’s different to how you feel.
  4. Remember, it’s OK not to be OK.
  5. Remember that feelings aren’t mutually exclusive.
  6. Be realistic.
  7. Recognize toxic positivity messages.
  • Kim-Lee hails from Grassy Park. Having attended both the University of the Western Cape and the University of Cape Town, she obtained her Master’s Degree in her respective field of industrial psychology and has paved her professional path through corporate heavy-weights.
  • She is currently completing her PHD in Parenting at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where she hopes to use her knowledge and platform to create a positive impact in the minds, hearts and lives of youth and families in South Africa.

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