How to Handle Toxic Positivity

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Do you know people who always tell you to look on the bright side of any situation? Claire gives you some tips on how to deal with toxic positivity when you really need some empathy. Plus, she answers a question from a listener who wants to know if she should confront someone she suspects doesn’t like her.

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Claire Bidwell-Smith

Claire Bidwell-Smith  00:00

Have you ever told someone about something hard going on in your life? And they responded by encouraging you to look on the bright side? And even more maybe pointed out someone who has it worse? Did it make you feel like shit when they did that? Welcome to toxic positivity.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  00:19

I’m Claire Bidwell-Smith. And that’s what we’re talking about today on new day. The phrase toxic positivity has been thrown around a lot lately, especially in the last couple of years of COVID. But why? And what is it exactly? Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult the situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. But the problem I have with this incessant positivity is that it really just dismisses the feelings a person that’s having, and can make someone experience shame and doubt for whatever they’re going through. I saw a lot of this at the beginning of COVID. All this shaming going on when people expressed discomfort or grief over the changes and disruptions to their lives. Someone on Instagram would write a post feeling sad about their kids being home from school, or how they had to postpone a wedding or some other event. And then people would jump all over them, reminding them that it could be much worse, and they should focus on gratitude. For those of you out there who are determined to stay positive, I get it. Gratitude is important. Taking stock of what we do have is important. But we get to grieve a little, too. Everyone does, telling someone that they should stop feeling something their feeling is harmful. And ultimately, it does a disservice to all of us. I do believe that most of the time, that person urging a positive outlook is coming from a good place. But I also know that they’re probably someone who’s really uncomfortable experiencing their own difficult emotions. So when they see it happening in other people their impulses to redirect, they’re not always trying to shame someone. I mean, sometimes they are, there are some really mean people on the internet. But most of the time, they probably just haven’t been taught how to express a lot of emotion in the first place. The thing about toxic positivity is that it’s pretty rampant these days. And some people are truly obsessed with maintaining a positive spin on things, even tragic stuff. And while there have been studies that have shown that there are advantages to maintaining a positive outlook, positive thinking does not exist in a vacuum. It’s not a band aid for everything. It can have really negative consequences. It can silence and shame people. And it can also prevent them from seeking social and professional help when it’s needed. In my own life when I was 18, and my parents died, there were so many people who told me right away that I should be grateful that I had them alive as long as I did. A lot of people told me I would be fine if I focused on living my life.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  02:37

But each time someone said one of these things to me, it made me feel a little worse about how much I was grieving. That made me feel like there was something wrong with me. Then it resulted in me shutting down and not wanting to talk about what was going on, which further resulted in me struggling through years of depression and anxiety before ever seeking help. I think one of the problems here is that some people mix up the expression of difficult emotions with being negative. But look, research shows that talking about emotions, including difficult ones may help the brain better process feelings. And some studies find that labeling and talking about emotions reduces the strength of certain brain pathways associated with those emotions. This means that talking about difficult feelings may make them feel less overwhelming. So what do you do when you’re dealing with some toxic positivity at a time when you really just need some empathy. Try to pinpoint the people in your life who are insisting on this kind of positive thinking and be careful about what, when, and how much you share with them when you’re feeling vulnerable. seek understanding from family and friends who will actually offer it. Don’t second guess your feelings. Find healthy outlets for anger and frustration. And get professional support if you’re having trouble finding someone who can listen adequately. As a therapist, I can’t emphasize how important it is to let ourselves feel the hardest emotions, to let ourselves grieve and be real with how we’re reacting to experiences. It’s not up to us to judge who gets to grieve what, who gets to struggle with what, what is up to us is how we support each other as we go through this hard stuff. Be kind to yourself, be kind to others.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  04:20

Today’s listener question is really fun. I answer your questions each Monday and Wednesday. And I’d love to hear from you. Send me an email at or fill out the online form at Today I’m answering an email from Lauren. She wrote Hi, Claire. You know that feeling you get when you know you just know that someone doesn’t like you and you don’t know why. What can we do to deal with this? I have fantasy scenarios in my head where I confront the person and say why don’t you like me? But I know that A, not everyone has to like everyone and B, this would accomplish nothing. How do we deal with this kind of feeling? Can we write it? Or do we just have to work on ourselves? And how? Thank you for all the help you offer on New Day, Lauren. Lauren, this question made me laugh. And it immediately made me think of someone in my own circle who I suspect doesn’t like me. And it made me think for a minute about how I’m handling it myself, and how I feel about it, I have to admit that I’ve been acting a little passive aggressive with this person. And as a result, I’m really not feeling awesome about that behavior. But it’s all a weird situation, right? Like, as you say, it doesn’t seem like the exactly right thing to do to confront them about it. I know for me that I’ve been immediately kind of criticizing myself, and jumping to conclusions about why this person doesn’t like me. And basically just focusing on all the shit about myself that I assume is annoying to everyone. But on the other side, like who’s to say why these people don’t really like us? I remember when I was in grad school, to become a therapist, a teacher once told us that, anytime we don’t like someone, it’s usually because some aspect of ourselves is being reflected by this person. And I’ve always thought about this. For example, when you don’t like someone because you think they’re arrogant, or sloppy, or mean spirited.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  06:11

You’re just really recognizing those traits of yours and disliking the other person for making you see them. So this made me wonder if the like, reverse is true. Or Fred helps here. Would it help you if you knew that whatever the person dislikes about you is really not about you at all. But something that they dislike about themselves? Maybe probably doesn’t completely solve it, though, does it? The more I think about it, I kind of lean towards confronting them, play it out in your head and see how it feels to imagine telling them that you get the feeling they don’t like you. And you’re wondering if there’s anything you can do to change it. I mean, at this point, what’s the worst that can happen? It could change things for the better, and probably not too much for the worse. I think getting clear on what you want out of the relationship is important to Lauren is this bugging you because you like them, and you want to be friends with them. If so, like confronting it and working on it is not a bad idea. But if you don’t really like them, and you don’t want to pursue our friendship, then I think it’s time to let it go. But I think that letting it go means recognizing that it hurts for whatever reason, even if you don’t really want to be friends with them, it still hurts when people don’t like us. So letting yourself feel that and then move on. Another thing to do is to try to figure out if the situation is actually serving as a distraction for something bigger that you need to feel. Maybe the whole thing reminds you of a previous rejection that was painful. And that’s something that actually needs attention. Or maybe it hits like right to your insecurities about something about yourself that you know you want to change, but you’ve been avoiding working on. I’ll say that I know when I am feeling secure in my life and my relationships. I really don’t give a fuck what people think about me. It’s only when I’m not happy with myself, I get easily bothered by stuff like this or I feel insecure. So the answer does come back to the good old work on yourself stuff. But lastly, I just want to reiterate that letting yourself feel hurt is okay. You know, regardless of what you do about this, regardless of the outcome of it, or if you want to be friends with them or not just let it be okay that it hurts that it feels like someone doesn’t like you. You know, we’re human creatures. We’re social. We’d like to be liked. We like other people, and it doesn’t feel good when someone doesn’t like us. All right. Now go hang out with some people who make you feel amazing, Lauren.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  08:37

Make sure you come back on Wednesday; I’ll answer a question about separating your work life from your home life which can be so hard with so many of us still working from home. The best way to make sure you never miss an episode of NEW DAY is to subscribe to the show, do that right now. And I’ll see you back here on Wednesday.

Claire Bidwell-Smith  08:52

NEW DAY is a Lemonada Media Original. The show was produced by Kryssy Pease and Erianna Jiles. Kat Yore is our engineer. Music is by Hannis Brown. New Day is produced in partnership with the well-being trust the Jed foundation and Education Development Center. Thanks for listening.

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