Toxic posivity vs. forced positivity (Episode 55)

The term “toxic positivity” has been heard more often in pop culture lately. But what if positivity can’t be toxic? What if the problem is forced positivity – and even forced gratitude? Kay Coughlin explores why this idea can actually make positivity hurtful, and how to break the cycle of forced positivity.

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Transcript: Toxic positivity vs. forced positivity (Episode 55)

Hi there. I’m your host Kay Coughlin. And you’re listening to From One Caregiver to Another. I am a sandwich family caregiver. I have kids at home and I am the primary caregiver for my own mother. And I don’t believe the old stories and traditions about being a caregiver have to be true for us. I believe we caregivers can have dreams, even when we have caregiver responsibilities. We have value as individuals, we deserve to say no and to have our own lives. Nobody can do it all of course, but we can decide what’s okay with us, What’s not okay with us and we can dare to be ourselves. This is episode 55.

Today on the podcast I am talking to anyone who is a caregiver or a parent, or who identifies with being told to be a human giver to other people, and that is human giver syndrome, of course. Or anybody who feels deeply that your true thoughts and emotions are being minimized on a regular basis because I am one of you.

This episode, this topic is so close to my heart. Because of what I do for a living and am a life coach, I know that when any of us has an extreme reaction to a topic or idea, especially when we reject it outright, it means that we need to explore it and why we have such a strong reaction. For me, positivity is one of those things. That’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but stick with me. I’m going to explain why I’ve had such an extreme reaction to positivity. That until now I have to confess that I have actually kind of indulged in thinking about something that’s really come to be known in pop culture as toxic positivity. I even promised my clients that I’m never going to go there with them.

The term toxic positivity, and just to be clear, that is the term that really gets me going, not positivity itself. I do believe in positivity, but I’ll get to that in a bit. But the term toxic positivity is actually sprinkled throughout my work, including a lot of podcast episodes.

So when I sat down to outline this episode, I tried to define the term toxic positivity, and I realized that I don’t like it for a couple of different reasons. Positivity is not a substance like lead or radium, I guess, that has been proven to be really harmful to the human body. And the term toxic positivity really implies that we have to consume the thoughts other people have about positivity and that we have to feel the way they do about positivity, whether or not we’re ready for it.

And the truth is they do not have that much control over us and we don’t have that much control over other people either.

But does that make toxic positivity a myth? Well, I think that’s probably too strong of a way to put it. So I’m going to say that at best, it’s a term that’s come to mean that somehow we are the victims of other people’s beliefs about positivity. And I don’t like anything that implies being a victim.

And it’s not because I don’t think there are real victims out there. For sure there are way too many people in this world who are victims of systems and biases and the actions of an individual or the actions of an organization, like a government or a political party or a corporation.

I just don’t think that positivity is something anybody can be a victim of, or at least that’s something that would only happen in extreme circumstances.

But it is very real and I think very common for people to try to force positivity on us. And so that’s the term that I want to train myself to use from now on, forced positivity.

Other people can try to force positivity on me and I can try to force it on myself too. And you know, I’m going to lump gratitude in with this. Also I’ve experienced a lot of people trying to force gratitude. If this is making you really uncomfortable, I want to ask you to go ahead and stick with me because I’m not saying that positivity and gratitude don’t work.

I’m saying that they are practices that don’t work when we use them – and hear me when I say this – when we use them to pretend that the other things in our life aren’t true.

I do believe very strongly in the science that proves that positivity and gratitude practices work to change our outlook on life and they can be very healing and they can completely transform lives.

I mean, I myself use the things we know about positive or uplifting hormones to treat my own depression, which I was diagnosed with a long time ago. I have a regular exercise routine that gets my blood pumping enough to release and move those hormones around in my body and in my brain. I pray and I meditate quite often, which is also known to stimulate those positive hormones as well.

In fact, one of the most memorable speeches I’ve ever heard was listening to a Jesuit priest talk about his book on gratitude, which is called “The Gratitude Factor.” And his name is Charles Shelton. And I think it’s such an excellent book that I’m going to put a link to it in the show notes. So yes, in this episode on how not to force positivity and gratitude, I’m going to leave you a link to a book on gratitude. He passed away a couple of years ago. And I was so truly sad to hear that he’s gone. The world definitely needs more compassion the way he practiced it.

So I’m going to define forced positivity. This is where either someone else is using their influence to persuade us, to try to be positive for their own reasons, or we put pressure on ourselves to be positive, no matter else is going on.

I’ve said this before in other podcast episodes and other places where I put my work out in public, but I really, really don’t like the idea of anything that seems like violence of any kind, especially self violence, which is what it sounds like to me when someone uses a whole lot of energy in a hurtful way against themself.

I know that this irritation, I guess, with positivity and even gratitude comes up a lot for me because I spend so much time talking with family caregivers and members of the sandwich generation like me. And one of the messages we hear a lot is that we really ought to be content with our lot in life. And there’s this belief that if we could only appear positive and yes I said, appear positive, look positive to other people, then our care receivers would be better off somehow. We really ought not to complain in case it would make our care receivers feel worse than they already do. So it’s best to just put on a shiny, happy face and just make lemonade out of lemons whenever we possibly can or pretend to do it, even when we can’t.

And we’re supposed to do this to fake this, even when every bit of everything we’ve got to give is being used up caring for other people. And this is all tied up in that belief system that we now call Human Giver Syndrome. And of course, I’ve talked about that quite a lot in episodes of this podcast if you want to learn more about it.

When we connect positivity and gratitude to things we should do in order to make other people more comfortable, we get way too close to blaming people for feeling the whole range of human emotions, because it’s true that humans feel all the emotions.

And all of this sounds an awful lot like shame. So when someone tries to use positivity or gratitude in this way, I think it has the opposite effect for a lot of us.

It can kind of put us into a shame spiral where we feel awful because we can’t tap into all of the good things that we know positivity and gratitude could do for us. If only we were somehow more enlightened or if we were somehow better people. Yuck. I am telling you, this is not how positivity and gratitude are supposed to work.

And there’s a problem with valuing positivity above everything else. It’s way too easy to use it like a club and to hit people over the head with it, to tell people that positivity will solve everything. If only they could manage to do it somehow. It’s just way too easy to pretend that all the other things don’t exist.

And even though it’s hard to believe, there’s nothing that takes more energy to maintain, or that feels worse in the long run, than shoving down all the other things that we believe we shouldn’t think or feel or want or need.

We humans naturally feel a gigantic range of emotions. And most of these emotions are challenging ones, not positive ones or ones that make us feel good.

In her absolutely wonderful book called “emotional Aglity,” at the beginning of chapter three, author Susan David has this to say about human emotions. “The count will vary depending on which expert you ask. But for our purposes, let’s say there are seven basic emotions, joy, anger, sadness, fear, surprise, contempt, and disgust… Five of them, anger, sadness, fear, contempt, and disgust are clearly on the not-so-comfortable end of the affective spectrum.” And I’ll put a link to her book in the show notes as well.

And to me that’s a really, really big, wow moment. I think her explanation really tells us a lot about why we feel so unseen, minimized or even dismissed when somebody hears about whatever we’re struggling with and then advises us to just think positively or go do a gratitude exercise. Because in a very real way, that is asking us to ignore or deny about five sevenths of our emotions. And if you do the math here, and I did, five sevenths is about 71%.

I do not want to be someone who ignores 71% of who I really am. And I definitely don’t want to be somebody who tells another person they should ignore 71% of who they actually are!

I was talking to a dear friend about the idea of toxic positivity recently. And yes, I used the term toxic positivity with her because my decision to use the term forced positivity instead has only come about since that conversation happened.

So as we talked about how to make it stop without totally losing our minds and screaming at the people who keep telling us to do it, she said something really amazing. She said, what she would like to do is find a way to break the cycle. I love that. I think that was a brilliant thing to say, because as a life coach, a lot of the work I do is helping people break the cycle of something they do that isn’t helpful to them.

How do we break this cycle of forced positivity then? So these are things that you can always use no matter what cycle you’re trying to break, but I really like applying them to this idea of breaking the cycle of forced positivity. These are things that I just think are more useful and helpful.

The first two of these are things that you’re going to hear from a lot of people. And you hear them a lot because they’re really good.

One. Number one is mindfulness. Now mindfulness is something that a lot of us confuse with positivity, but it’s a very different thing. Mindfulness is really the simple practice of just noticing, noticing what’s going on internally and externally so that you can be truly aware.

And this is without putting any judgment on it. Like, is this positive or negative? There are lots of mindfulness practices and none of them that I’ve come across have this same beastly energy as forcing positivity. And in my work, I often will call mindfulness simply noticing or observing. It’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s definitely on the same wavelength.

And I actually call it step one in my three-step process to change anything you want to in your life.

And then number two is simply slowing down or taking a pause when you feel yourself getting defensive about something. And in this case, it’s getting defensive about forced positivity or forced gratitude.

And I think slowing down is just a specific kind of mindfulness. And the way that I know I’m getting defensive is because I can feel my anger start to kind of gather into a knot around my heart. I know that I can hear my thoughts collecting into a string of reasons that I am right, and the other person is wrong. And these thoughts feel like they bunch up like a storm cloud in that area of my forehead that’s just above and behind my eyebrow. I have noticed that I tilt my chin down just a little tiny bit so that I can glare more out of the tops of my eyeballs and I can feel my shoulders start to rise up toward my ears. And a yoga teacher once actually said to me, to stop wearing my shoulders like earrings, which I thought was a brilliant way to help me tune into the way my body reacts when I get stressed and defensive.

So these next three and there’s just five of these total, but these next three are a little less common. And dang it, I’m going to tell you they’re hard. And I wish that I didn’t have to suggest something so hard, but when you’re ready and when you can go deep enough and be open enough, you’ll see what these can do for you.

Here’s what they are. And they’re hard. I warned you. They are being willing to feel everything, being vulnerable, and being open to receiving. I know these three are a list that can make the most self-aware person cringe here.

Number three then was being willing to feel everything. And this goes back to that 71% of our emotions that are challenging, that I mentioned earlier from Susan David’s book. Yes, these emotions really can suck, but what happens over time is you begin to realize that it takes a lot less energy to feel these emotions than to reject them. Over time it becomes less painful to just go ahead and feel them than to pretend they don’t exist. Because the more you deny them, the more they’re going to demand you pay attention to them and they will come out in other ways.

I don’t know about you, but I have caused a lot of pain to the people around me when I lash out at them, because the 71% of me that is made up of challenging emotions is demanding to be let out of their cage anywhere. And these emotions really come out with their teeth bared at the nearest target. And sometimes it’s the people I love.

Number four then is being vulnerable. Okay. This topic is obviously too big to cover here, it would need a whole episode of its own. And maybe I’ll do that sometime. But basically being vulnerable means being honest with yourself and the people around you, admitting when something doesn’t work out the way you wanted it to, and letting the people around you be imperfect and sometimes horrible people too.

And being vulnerable also means letting yourself feel happiness and feel joy. So obviously this one is closely related to being willing to feel everything. Except vulnerability is about letting other people in too. And it’s so hard and it does mean that you will have to trust some people. So obviously this one’s going to be very difficult for most of us and me included.

But when you do allow yourself and other people to be vulnerable, it’s painful but it’s also magical. And it totally frees you from just about anything that’s been holding you back.

And then the last one on this list, and this is number five is being open to receiving. This is I think a special version of being vulnerable. And this one, being open to receiving, means being willing to accept what other people are offering. And sometimes that means receiving help. It can mean receiving invitations, invitations to social events, to talk when you need to talk. Sometimes it can mean receiving an invitation to rest. This one definitely means listening to what people have to say and considering their ideas and perspectives and wisdom, including what they may have to offer on positivity and gratitude practices.

So I’ll close today by just saying there are lots of positivity and gratitude practices out there and they work. Please try them. But I’m going to tell you that they will work so much better for you when you aren’t forcing them. When you allow yourself to acknowledge all of the other things. And then you also allow yourself to explore positivity and gratitude.

And when you approach it that way, or maybe a better way of saying it would be when you are willing to receive it that way, I’ve found that positivity and gratitude will be gentle and healing and totally amazing.

Thank you so much for listening today. You can learn more about me and about all of this work at Facilitator On That’s facilitator on And there is a lot of good stuff there, including links to my book and a link to my online community about boundaries. And that’s free. If you haven’t joined my online community to talk about boundaries yet, go do that.

And on my website, you will also see links to learn more about Human Giver Syndrome.

If you want almost daily doses of healthy support messages for family caregivers, and sandwich family caregivers who want to dare to live their own lives, please follow me on Instagram. And there’s a link for that in the show notes too.

If you liked this episode, please leave a comment. And think of two people you can tell about it. If they’re new to podcasts, show them how to subscribe. Word of mouth is the very best way to help podcasts grow, which will help more caregivers find their way here. I can’t wait to be here with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver to Another. 

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your guide

Kay Coughlin, CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is a business coach for the non-profit sector and social justice businesses. She is also well-known for being an advocate for family caregivers.

In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to earn a living, set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.

Kay also teaches about emotional labor, how to rest, and Human Giver Syndrome, and is the host of the "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind."

Kay is well-known for her public speaking on boundaries and self-care. 

Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio, and is the primary caregiver for her own mother, who lives right next door. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Copyright 2022. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.

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