Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Overcoming Toxic Positivity With Whitney Goodman
[00:00:02] PF: Welcome to Episode 348 of Live Happy Now. We all know that positivity is good for us, except when it isn’t. And today’s guest is going to teach us how to tell the difference. I’m your host, Paula Felps. And this week, I’m joined by Whitney Goodman, the radically honest psychotherapist and founder of the Collaborative Counseling Center in Miami. Whitney is the author of the new book, Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy. She’s here to talk about what toxic positivity is, what it does to us, and how to manage it in ourselves and others. So let’s find out what she has to say.
[00:00:40] PF: Whitney, welcome to Live Happy Now.
[00:00:42] WG: Thank you so much for having me.
[00:00:44] PF: Well, this is a terrific topic for us, because it’s something we’re starting to hear a lot about. And it can be confusing because of course, we always think of positivity as being a good thing. I mean we are Live Happy. So of course, we love positivity. But your book gives so much great insight into toxic positivity. And to kick off the conversation, can you explain to us what toxic positivity is, and then tell us how it’s different from healthy positivity?
[00:01:15] WG: So toxic positivity denies an emotion and tells us that we should suppress it. And when we use toxic positivity, we’re basically telling ourselves and other people that this emotion shouldn’t exist, it’s wrong. And that we can try really hard to eliminate it entirely. And I really look at toxic positivity as being the unrelenting pressure to be happy all the time no matter what the circumstances are. And when we compare that to healthy positivity, healthy positivity is when we’re able to make space for reality and hope, right? So we can recognize the value of seeing the good, but allow people to arrive there at their own pace and to reach their own conclusions rather than sort of like pushing this on them.
[00:02:05] PF: And you had your own journey with toxic positivity, which you described very well in your book. Well, when did you start see it becoming more prevalent in other people?
[00:02:16] WG: So I think I didn’t really realize what it was when I was experiencing it. Especially as women, I think we’re used to being told like to smile and to be happy. And there’s definitely a pressure to appear a certain way. And after I became a therapist, though, I noticed that a lot of my clients were complaining about this behind closed doors, but they felt like a very similar pressure to show up in the outside world. And I was like, “Wow, I’m not the only one that feels like this. Everybody else is kind of feeling like this is a little bit uncomfortable.”
[00:02:50] PF: What do you think is driving that right now? Because I have a friend who’s a therapist, and she said she has seen it so much in her practice. And I’m just seeing little things pop up about it here and there. So what’s going on with making us aware of it and what’s pushing it forward?
[00:03:08] WG: I had an article that popped up on my phone today that said like, “10 ways to be happy during the pandemic.” And I was like, “Wow, what an ironic title.” And I think that really speaks to this whole thing that’s going on that you’re talking about. That we’re under so much stress, especially over the last couple of years that it sort of feels like you have to be happy. Keep it all together so that you can keep working so that people won’t be upset with you, so that you can be seen as like a good person. And it’s becoming so overwhelming for people. I think everyone’s really hitting their breaking point of like, “I just can’t pretend anymore. It’s too heavy.”
[00:03:50] PF: And there’s got to be some harm involved in faking it. We have all heard the whole thing about fake it till you make it. But there’s also a real harm in suppressing or denying those emotions. Can you tell us what it’s doing to us? Because you’re seeing it in your office every day.
[00:04:07] WG: Yeah, absolutely. And I talk about this a lot in the book that suppressing emotions does not work. They typically just intensify when we suppress them. And we see this reflected in the research that if I tell myself, “I can’t be angry. I need to get rid of this feeling. I’m going to cover it up.” It just ends up coming out in another way and usually 10 times worse. And sometimes we’re not aware of how that is happening.
The other thing that happens is that it really makes our relationships very difficult, because if I don’t feel comfortable sharing, then neither does anybody else. And we can’t connect over a lot of these shared difficult experiences, which is really what makes relationships feel closer. And we end up feeling like alone and isolated in the end and often very like weird or messed up because we’re having feelings that we don’t see other people experiencing.
[00:05:04] PF: And as you mentioned, the pandemic really did exacerbate things. And is part of that because people were at home. They’re not feeling great. But then when they get on a zoom call, or they’re talking to somebody, it’s like, “Yeah, it’s all good.” And they don’t even have that one on one interaction that someone else can read that things aren’t the way that they’re saying they are.
[00:05:26] WG: Exactly. And with the pandemic, I think one of the ways people coped was by trying to pretend that everything was normal. And this is denial. It’s a coping skill, right? And especially a lot of like bosses and leaders that I heard from my own clients, like they were almost demanding that their workforce show up with a positive attitude, because it was too heavy for them to deal with the reality of what was actually going on. And we see this a lot, especially at work.
[00:05:59] PF: Yeah, so let’s address the leadership aspect of this for a minute. And then I want to talk about it from a parenting standpoint as well. But as a leader, what can you do to make sure that you’re not forcing positivity upon your people, and that you’re really hearing what they need?
[00:06:15] WG: There’s a lot of ways that I think we can deal with disruption, with people being upset in the workplace, complaints, things like that, that are really effective. So just showing genuine like interest in your employees’ lives is really important. Asking questions. Showing that you care about them more than just what they can provide for you. And showing empathy. There’s a there’s a lot of studies that show that people really recall when their boss has been sympathetic versus unsympathetic. And also, really emphasizing the meaningfulness and the importance of the work, people tend to perform better and feel better when there is some type of value within the work. And also just treating people with respect, trust, integrity, all of these really normal human things that I think sometimes get pushed to the wayside in favor of like productivity or numbers.
[00:07:10] PF: And did that become more difficult for bosses during the time when you’ve got a lot – You’ve got remote workers now, and you’re not doing that one on one interaction. So is it easier for them to kind of not see them as a human, but see them as a performance machine?
[00:07:26] WG: Sure. And we have to remember that the bosses are also dealing with all the same things as their employees during this time. And I know, I felt that as a therapist, it was this weird moment of like I’m living through the same problem as my clients. And a boss might feel that with their employees that it’s like they’re under so much pressure as well. That it’s hard to always be on. And I think the more humanity we show and feel like, “You know what? I’m scared. I’m dealing with this too,” the easier it is to connect.
[00:07:57] PF: And so what about parents, because their kids might be going through the same thing. Or they might even unknowingly or unconsciously be promoting toxic positivity by saying, “Just cheer up. It’ll be fine.” So how is it different when we’re dealing with our children and helping them get through this?
[00:08:14] WG: Yeah, there’s such a cultural expectation of like, “I just want my kid to be happy,” right? Or all I care about is your happiness. And so we start instilling this in kids from a young age, and it makes sense. Like happy kids are easy kids. And so parents, I think, have to be careful to not overvalue one emotion, like happiness, and try to encourage kids to show a wide array of emotions and model those emotions themselves, because they all have value and meaning. If we felt happy all the time, we would get nothing done. And it really wouldn’t be that great of a life, to be honest.
[00:08:55] PF: What are some of the signs that we can see in ourselves that we might be falling into that toxic positivity trap.
[00:09:02] WG: So some of the biggest examples are when you are trying to talk yourself out of feeling something, being upset about something. That’s legitimate. And some examples of this would be like I shouldn’t be over this by now. Or I should be happy. I should be grateful. I know I shouldn’t complain about this. But it’s like adding these caveats before we talk about something that is upsetting us, or that is a legitimate issue in our lives.
[00:09:30] PF: So what should we be doing instead?
[00:09:33] WG: So instead, I recommend that people try to really get to the root of what’s going on and validate their emotions and also figure out what they need. So I talked about this in the book that we need to figure out if we need like validation or a kick in the butt, right? And sometimes we can over validate ourselves and get stuck. And then on the other end of the spectrum, we aren’t giving ourselves any validation. We’re just using toxic positivity and we don’t get anywhere. So I recommend that people look at like, “Okay, what am I feeling? Where might this be coming from? Is there something that I need right now?” And that might mean more encouragement? It also might mean more rest? And that’s going to differ depending on the situation.
[00:10:18] PF: And how do we work through that? Do you suggest like they journal it? Or how do we unpack what we’re actually feeling as opposed to what we should be feeling, or what we think we should be feeling?
[00:10:30] WG: So whatever you’re feeling, it’s just a response to either like incoming stimuli or something you’ve been more comfortable feeling. So I want people to kind of approach their feelings with just like a neutral view, right? There’s not anything like good or bad. Then you can start to figure out like what is this like in my body? How do I experience this emotion? Then kind of look at where might this be coming from? And that requires us to take inventory of our day. And sometimes it’s that we had an interaction with someone that set us off. It could also just be that like, “you didn’t sleep well, last night, and you need to drink more water.”
So trying to help people get in touch with like what do emotions feel like for them? How do they typically label them? And what are those emotions telling them?
[00:11:23] PF: So it definitely just takes a little bit of getting still with yourself and really going inward, which a lot of people don’t want to do right now.
[00:11:30] WG: Exactly. And I don’t blame them. It’s really uncomfortable. It’s hard.
[00:11:36] PF: Yeah, yeah, it is a lot of hard work. And because we’ve been through so much, like as you noted in the last couple of years, I think there’s a lot that we just were like, “Ugh! I am –” It’s like that closet door that it’s like you’ve put all your junk in and it’s like everything’s just going to come falling out and make a big mess. So I don’t want to do it.
[00:11:53] WG: Exactly. And sometimes we do have to go into survival mode. There were points of the pandemic where I was advising people to do that. And it’s not a time to unpack like your deepest traumas and emotions when you’re in the middle of a crisis. It can be too much. But we also don’t have to use toxic positivity to get through that. It’s okay to say like, “I’m just surviving right now. I need to get through this. And I’m going to deal with whatever I’m feeling when I have the time and the space to do that.”
[00:12:25] PF: Yeah, that’s excellent advice. And obviously, sometimes, it’s not just us. Like we can accept that for ourselves and say, “Alright, I am just going to do my bare minimum, and make it through this.” So what about when the people we’re talking to are the ones with the toxic positivity? And first, you give some excellent examples of phrasing and responses that we might not recognize as toxic positivity. Can you talk about that? Some of the keywords, if you will, that are toxic responses, versus what we really need to hear?
[00:13:00] WG: Yeah. So I think it’s important to note that positivity becomes toxic when it’s used with the wrong people at the wrong time and about the wrong topics. So some of these phrases can be okay in certain situations. But they become toxic when they’re not helpful for those people. So some of them might be like, “Everything happens for a reason.” “You need to be positive to get through this.” Or “God will never give you more than you can handle,” can be a typical one for people, especially if they’re not religious. So thinking about some of these phrases that we really hear very often, right? Or like, “Be grateful. It’s not worse. At least it wasn’t X.” We’re trying to put a positive spin on something that isn’t positive.
[00:13:49] PF: So how do you even respond when people do that? Because I know, I’ve been in those situations. And my response is usually just like stare at them with an open mouth. Like you did not just say that. After my father died, I came back from – I’d been off for about four days and went back to work. I was working at a newspaper at a time. And my lifestyle editor came up and said, “How was your time away?” And I said, “I was at my dad’s funeral.” She goes, “Yeah, but it had to feel good to get out of the office.”
[00:14:17] WG: Oh my gosh, yeah.
[00:14:18] PF: And it’s like, “No. That’s not helping.”
[00:14:21] WG: What a silver lining. Oh, my goodness.
[00:14:24] PF: So how do people deal with when someone responds and it’s not helping?
[00:14:30] WG: I think it’s important to decide what role this person plays in your life. So there have been times where people at like the grocery store say something like that to me, and I might be like, “Thanks,” and walk away. That’s an option. If there are people that are close to you that you want to teach, I think it can be helpful to say, “I know you’re really trying to help, and that is not a helpful thing to say.” Or to even respond and say, “Actually, it was really hard.” With your example, my dad passed away and it was a sad time even though I was out of the office. And really trying to like teach people what is helpful to you, especially those repeat offenders. You can say like, “When you say these things, it’s not helpful. I would really appreciate if you could just listen to me or help me with dinner.” Giving people other suggestions. Because most of the time they think they’re helping. That’s the really like tricky thing about this.
[00:15:27] PF: How do we kind of educate people to pull them out of that and really teach them what we need in terms of support?
[00:15:34] WG: Yeah, I think that’s the central message of my book, is that these people are not toxic. They’re just kind of repeating the same thing over and over, like you said. And so we can teach people that it’s okay to not feel happy all the time. That it’s actually normal to have negative emotions. And also offer them concrete strategies to help us in the future. So for some people, that may mean, “It would really be great if you could give me a hug, or if you could cook dinner, or if I could just talk about the problem without getting any advice,” and try to be very deliberate and direct about the type of help that you need. Because if we don’t tell people, we can’t really expect them to know exactly what would be helpful to us.
[00:16:21] PF: Right. And sometimes we don’t know what we need. So what do we do at that point? Other than read your book, which then we find out. But when we’re not really sure what we need, but we just know that I don’t need you telling me I should feel better, you know?
[00:16:37] WG: Yeah. And that’s enough. If that’s the one thing that you know in that moment, it’s okay to say, “This really isn’t helping me right now. And I don’t know what kind of help I need right now. But when I figure it out, I’ll let you know.” Because I know that overwhelming feeling when you’re struggling of like, “Gosh! How am I supposed to figure out what I need and then tell someone.” And you might be in a place where you’re not ready to do that. And so it’s okay to just tell someone like, “Hey, this isn’t helpful,” and stop there. And get to a place where you can kind of learn what might be helpful for you. And that takes time.
[00:17:14] PF: And part of it is just releasing the feeling that you should feel a certain way. And one thing that you talked about that I found so interesting is the shame cycle. And I wanted you to talk about why does toxic positivity create a shame cycle? And what does that look like for people?
[00:17:35] WG: Yeah. So whenever we use some of these things against ourselves that I talked about, like, “I know I should be grateful.” “I should be more positive.” “I shouldn’t be feeling this way.” It creates a feeling of shame, because you’re essentially gaslighting yourself. You’re telling yourself like, “I know you’re feeling this thing, but you shouldn’t be feeling it. And I need you to stop right now.” And this makes us feel isolated, alone, and really unable to manage our own emotions. And so we kind of like retreat into ourselves with this shame. What would be more effective is if we could say like, “I’m having this feeling right now. It’s legitimate. It’s real. And I know that other people have felt like me, too. I know that this is okay to feel this way. And I’m going to get myself through it in the way that works for me, and that isn’t harmful to me or to someone else.”
[00:18:27] PF: What does it do if we stay in that cycle of shame? What is it emotionally and even physically do to us?
[00:18:35] WG: Well, it’s exhausting, right? If you constantly feel like you need to be performing, or then it makes you a bad person if you succumb to that negativity. You’re always going to feel less than and like you’re not doing enough. It also ties back in with the emotional suppression that we were talking about that it’s likely going to start impacting your sleep. It can impact your relationships. It can impact your mood throughout the day. It leads to an increased likelihood for things like depression and anxiety. There’s a lot of negative consequences to excessive emotional suppression and shaming yourself for feeling.
[00:19:13] PF: So what’s the quickest way that you advise someone to get out of that when they’re doing that “I should” and they’re throwing themselves into that spiral of shame? Do you have any tips for getting out of that quickly, kind of like jettison out your little escape hatch?
[00:19:28] WG: Yeah. The most effective thing I think is using the word and. So if we use the example of you’ve just lost somebody, they’ve passed away, you can say something like, “I am feeling sad, and I have other people around me.” If you’re really someone that’s prone to going into that positive mindset or the toxic positivity, trying to name your feeling that you might typically classify as negative. Add the word and. And then you can say something good, or neutral, or positive about your life. And what that does is it allows us in our brain to recognize both the good and the distressing, and make room for both and not deny one in replacing the other.
[00:20:16] PF: Yeah, that makes so much sense. And another thing that I really liked is you talk about complaining. And obviously, nobody wants to be around someone who complains all the time. But you have great news for people who like to complain. Because as you say, that there are certain benefits to complaining if it’s done right. So this is a two part question, is one, we’re going to talk about why it’s beneficial. And then I’d like you to kind of school us on how to complain properly.
[00:20:46] WG: Yeah, you’re right. Complaining gets a bad reputation, right? But complaining does show you what is important. It can help create change in the world. It also helps you get feedback from other people, process your emotions. It’s also one of the main ways that we gain sympathy, attention, or express dissatisfaction. So complaining has a lot of use, and eliminating it entirely would actually not be very helpful at all. But you’re right, that we can get stuck in our complaining and make it very ineffective. So I recommend that when people are complaining, they use facts and logic. They know their ideal outcome, and they understand who has the ability to make that happen. And what the research shows us is that when we use those three criteria, complaining ends up being quite helpful and effective.
[00:21:41] PF: That’s awesome. Yeah, we should all write that down, like those three little things. So every time we start, it’s like we can check it off. Make sure we’re doing it right. Because I love that. I love that aspect of it. So I know that we’re running out of time. But I’ve got a couple more things. One, I really want to talk about how do we learn to balance negativity and positivity. Because both of those things are important to have in our lives. And either other too much one or the other isn’t good for us. So how do we learn to strike that balance?
[00:22:14] WG: I think we really go back to that word and that I was just talking about and trying to allow ourselves to recognize both and make space for both. And also realizing what situations we might benefit from a little bit more positivity or that kick in the butt that I talked about, and what situations are really just hard, and there is no silver lining. I talk about like grief, infertility, parenting, all these really difficult topics where positivity might not be that helpful in some of the situations. And so recognizing in your life, like, “Is this a season where I just need to ride this out? Or is this a time where a different attitude might be helpful to me?
[00:23:01] PF: That’s really wise to look at it that way. And this book has so much great information. It’s really very timely, and very thoughtful, very well written. And what is it that you hope that your readers take away when they put this book down for the final time?
[00:23:20] WG: I hope that everyone who reads this book feels human after reading it, and that they’re allowed to feel a wide variety of emotions. And I hope it gets people talking to each other about what they’re going through, instead of hiding.
[00:23:35] PF: Yeah, it definitely has the power to do that. As I said, it’s something it’s so well written and really takes us on this journey. So I appreciate that you wrote it. And I thank you for taking the time to sit down and talk with us about it today.
[00:23:48] WG: Of course. Thank you so much. This is great.
[00:23:55] PF: That was Whitney Goodman, talking about toxic positivity. If you’d like to learn more about Whitney and her new book, Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy, or follow her on social media, visit our website at livehappy.com and click on the podcast link.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all new episode. And until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.