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What is ‘toxic positivity’ and why is it a problem? A new book explains.

Life isn’t a Hallmark card and that’s okay, writes therapist Whitney Goodman

(Nick Garcia Photography; TarcherPerigee)
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I came to Whitney Goodman’s new book, “Toxic Positivity,” with a healthy dose of skepticism, mostly because I come to any mention of positivity with a healthy dose of skepticism.

But first, a step back: Maybe you’re wondering, what is toxic positivity? And: How can positivity be toxic?

Do you feel annoyed when people pepper you with platitudes such as “Time heals all wounds” or “Life will never give you more than you can handle?” When you see “Live, laugh, love,” does it make you wonder where all the rest of the options are? Or maybe you’ve been told by a complete stranger to smile, as you seethe under your mask through yet another pandemic winter?

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“Somewhere along the way,” Goodman explains, “we constructed this idea that being a ‘positive person’ means you’re a robot who has to see the good in literally everything. … [A]nything less is a personal failure.”

Toxic positivity posits that complaining is dangerous and feeling negative about anything — including genuine hardship, loss and discrimination — only invites more bad things. To use a very current example, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt pressure to grasp at some sort of “bright side” during a global health crisis on top of financial uncertainty on top of multiple climate-change-related crises, on top of racial and social and political unrest and, well, you get the idea.

“At its core, toxic positivity is a form of gaslighting,” Goodman explains. “It tells people that what they’re feeling isn’t real, they’re making it up, and that they’re the only one who feels this way.”

Goodman, a psychotherapist in Miami who runs the popular Instagram account @sitwithwhit, has set out to try to fix this — to remind us that it’s okay to be sad when you’re sad, angry when you’re angry and happy when you’re genuinely happy. And to also allow those around you to fully feel their rainbow of feelings, too.

If you’re rolling your eyes, I get it. I avoid self-help books in general, especially when, like this one, they’re written by a therapist who made her name on Instagram. (When Instagram precedes someone’s profession or creative calling, it’s easy to interpret that as a sort of downgrade, an indication of popularity or superficiality rather than credibility. Sometimes it is, but not here.) Still, I paused at Goodman’s claim that she had combed through all the history and research around positive thinking and toxic positivity (all of it?) and described her own book as “honest, authentic, and real.” (Maybe let the reader decide? Also, aren’t “real” and “authentic” the same things?) But those are quibbles, and they didn’t linger. Goodman’s writing is straightforward and firm but full of empathy and gentle guidance, exactly what you’d want from any therapist, Instagram or no.

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To be clear, this is not a book about Instagram nor is it a book about a social media trend. Goodman convincingly demonstrates that toxic positivity isn’t new. In fact, she shows that it’s long been woven into almost every aspect of American culture from this country’s earliest days and is, in many ways, our national religion.

From there Goodman widens the lens of how and where toxic positivity shows up in the world: from conversations about infertility, family estrangement, job loss and parenting, just to name a few. “The core of toxic positivity is that it’s dismissive and it shuts down the conversation. It effectively says, ‘Nope, that feeling you’re experiencing, it’s wrong — and here’s why you should be happy instead!’”

“Healthy positivity,” on the other hand, “means making space for both reality and hope. Toxic positivity denies an emotion and forces us to suppress it.”

Goodman does a good job of zooming out to bigger overarching truths, countering beliefs about how much control we actually have when it comes to living a 100 percent positive life, including: “The human brain’s main function is to look out for danger and keep us alive, not to make us happy” and “Emotions are an involuntary response to environmental stimuli and we don’t have full control over our emotional experience.”

This is the rare self-help book where readers might recognize themselves as both victim and perpetrator. No one would characterize me as a silver linings kind of gal and I’m not religious, yet I found examples of phrases I had uttered (or internalized) plenty of times. In particular, “everything happens for a reason.” I found it to be a comfort, a way of believing that horrible things were all part of some bigger plan. If I hadn’t had a miscarriage, I wouldn’t have this specific child now. But I retired that phrase permanently after Sandy Hook; there was no reason, there was no greater plan, often there are no silver linings.

This book doesn’t just examine the problems of toxic positivity but also guides the reader toward solutions and strategies. In doing so it becomes a bit of a pocket therapist with chapters like “How To Process an Emotion,” “How To Complain Effectively” and “How To Support Someone.” These might seem basic but … have you met people?

One of the most powerful chapters is “Discrimination With a Smile,” which should push reasonably open-minded readers to reflect on their own behavior and words. Goodman acknowledges that she is “not an anti-racism educator” but uses research and her own experiences with clients to explore how toxic positivity has diminished the real problems of marginalized groups. “Positive platitudes and the pursuit of happiness are ultimately being used as tools to keep people submissive and quiet,” she says, when “getting angry and expressing dissatisfaction is often one of the most effective ways to create change within a society.” Goodman calls this “happiness politics” and explores how it shuts down conversations about not only racial inequality but also body image and the treatment of people who are disabled or chronically ill, among others.

More than a self-help book, this is a society-help book. It’s ambitious but based on the simple idea of being, as Goodman describes herself, “radically honest” with each other. And it’s about not pushing don’t-worry-be-happy talk on everyone around you, including yourself. Isn’t that something to (genuinely) smile about?

Kimberly Harrington is the author of “But You Seemed So Happy” and “Amateur Hour” and a columnist and regular contributor to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Toxic Positivity

Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed With Being Happy

By Whitney Goodman

TarcherPerigee. 304 pp. $26

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