We are in the #GoodVibesOnly age, and it’s kind of a bummer. We’re buried in platitudes: “The difference between a good day and a bad day is your attitude.” And: “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” People will murmur “Everything happens for a reason” at a child’s funeral or “Life will never give you more than you can handle” to someone experiencing suicidal depression. There seems to be a cultural belief that “positive” thoughts will bring you everything and “negative” ones will hold you back.
It’s not just that this attitude, when expressed at the wrong time, makes people feel worse instead of better. In her new book, Toxic Positivity, psychotherapist Whitney Goodman argues that we miss out on a lot of life and understanding of others if we are constantly trying to jump from one lily pad of joy to the next, avoiding the perpetually churning void beneath.
Obviously, some kinds of positivity are beneficial and help people remain resilient. “Healthy positivity means making space for both reality and hope,” Goodman says. But toxic positivity is too one-note. It’s a zombie-like mantra—#grateful, #GVO, #thinkpositive—repeated ad nauseum on inspirational blogs and Instagram accounts. It’s also a conversation stopper. If you tell your unhappy friend to be grateful for her marriage with all its imperfections, you won’t get to talk through what is really bothering her.
In Toxic Positivity (the book), we learn more about Goodman, who has a private therapy practice in Miami, Florida: She’s of Latinx heritage (her mother is Cuban American). In her early days as a therapist, she says, she operated from the desire to eradicate suffering and “was handing out toxic positivity like candy.” She felt a lot of pressure to look and act happy (both on social media and in real life), but in her mid-20s she got fed up with the incongruity of what people projected versus what was actually happening in their lives.
From the first chapter, Goodman cuts deeply into cultural norms to expose the emptiness within. She writes that many families allow only the expression of positive emotions and that our capitalist system functions best when we quash pesky “complainers.” This exploration is rooted in her life as a therapist, something she draws on in the form of several fictionalized or blended client characters.
A bit disorganized at times, Toxic Positivity is still a practical handbook for supporting other humans and ourselves. Goodman gives straightforward examples of when to avoid insipid positivity (at a funeral, when someone is dealing with infertility or discrimination, immediately after someone gets fired, and so on). She also provides alternative approaches that acknowledge the pain and difficulty of a distressing situation and allow the person to dictate what support they need. Slightly fictionalized “patients” share what they want to hear in tough times, expressions like “That is so painful/hard” or “This loss matters and it makes sense that you’re grieving.” Sometimes “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you” is really all that needs to be said.
Goodman could have included even more insights from people in pain. One of the best things I’ve learned through the years of trying to be a good friend is to give them a chance to steer the conversation. When a friend shares news of a breakup or death, I ask them how they feel about it. People don’t necessarily react the way you would predict.
As someone who has recently experienced chronic, persistent migraines over the past year, I was especially grateful to hear Goodman’s reflections on toxic positivity in the healthcare realm, something backed up by others in the field. Our cultural expectation is that if you eat/drink/do all the right things, including positive thinking, you won’t get sick. “It’s a version of wellness that seems to apply only to the privileged and able-bodied,” Goodman says, “and places the onus of responsibility completely on the individual.”
Well-meaning friends and family often told me what I should do or eat differently to avoid migraines. One person (I’d just met!) even infuriatingly suggested that my migraines were a psychosomatic reaction to me being worried that the world was starting to open up post-pandemic. Goodman encourages people to hold off on problem-solving unless others ask for help.
Toxic positivity shows up in excruciating ways for people with mental illness. Depressed people are told to shake off their negativity and are bombarded with ultimately useless tips. “Don’t use your energy to worry,” reads one social media post. “Use your energy to believe, create, trust, grow, glow, manifest, and heal.” Thanks, we’ll get right on that.
Goodman is admirably unafraid to smack down several aspects of our greater culture that just don’t work for many people. A few of her victims: The Law of Attraction/manifestation crowd, affirmations, and body positivity.
The Law of Attraction — the idea that you can attract wealth or romance just by believing it into existence — or manifestation — the notion that you can feel or believe something into existence — is “in direct conflict with most psychological research about motivation and goal achievement,” Goodman writes. She offers the alternative of the WOOP (wish/outcome/obstacle/plan) strategy, which, unlike manifestation, includes the imagining of obstacles and envisioning how they can be overcome.
She also notes that affirmations—daily repetitions of positive thoughts—don’t always work for everyone, especially for people with low self-esteem. Goodman offers techniques for more realistic affirmations (like “I can learn to love myself” instead of “I love myself”). She also encourages people to figure out concrete ways to live those affirmations out so they’re not just words floating in the ether.
Finally, Goodman is an advocate for the more realistic and achievable “body neutrality” over “body positivity.” “While body positivity pushes us to love our bodies and find joy in every bump, dimple, or curve, body neutrality allows you to make peace with the body you have,” she writes. She adds that sometimes you might like your body, other times not so much but it’s still “just your body.”
Goodman ventures into some of the darker corners of 20th century US history to unearth our relentless march toward positivity. In the heyday of eugenics, in the early 1900s, leaders “promised people that if we simply eliminated the weak and negative, those left behind would be free to pursue their best and happiest life.” Some health professionals of the past locked up and sterilized anyone who they felt “threatened the happiness of the larger society,” especially the mentally and physically ill. (Under California eugenics laws from 1909 to 1979, for example, the state sterilized more than 20,000 people, nearly all of them for being judged mentally ill or mentally deficient.)
After reading Toxic Positivity, I can’t help but see hints of eugenics eerily mirrored in a particular incarnation of #positivevibesonly: people who strive to eliminate all “negative/toxic” people in their lives. Goodman makes clear that abusers should be cut out, but that we don’t want to jettison people who are just going through a rough spot and could use our care. She suggests that Marie Kondo-ing our relationships might allow us to skip the hard work of laboring through conflict and punishes people who have legitimate things to complain about.
The book is ultimately a treatise against aiming for happiness (and avoiding difficult feelings) as an ultimate goal. Instead of running toward the nebulous and laughably impossible goal of constant happiness, Goodman suggests striving for a life that honors your values (which she encourages people to spell out explicitly) and a life that has meaning. “When you’re living in line with your values, things will be much more fulfilling and will make sense,” she concludes. “It won’t always feel ‘good,’ but you’ll know you’re in alignment with who you want to be.”