What is Toxic Positivity and How to Avoid It

‘A good teacher is like a candle that consumes itself to light the way for others.’

This quote has been attributed both to an Italian poet as well as a Turkish statesman, and while at first pass, it seems like an honourable sentiment, perhaps we need to take another look. What it’s really saying is that in order to illuminate the path for their students, a good teacher must consume their own resources and energy.

And we all know what happens to a candle that burns too long.

What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity is the pressure to display only positive emotions and maintain a positive mindset regardless of the situation. It is more than simply being optimistic. It is an extreme response that doesn’t allow for difficult or negative emotions – even if you find yourself in a difficult or negative situation.

In the school environment, toxic positivity might be visible by colleagues boasting about late nights marking papers, responding to a promotion being knocked back with ‘it’s all for the best’, claiming that they’re ‘fine’ when it is clear they are struggling or being told ‘back in my day we had it much worse’ when you point out something that is lacking.

Toxic positivity not only attempts to silence negative emotions, but it negates them altogether. This can lead to feeling guilt and shame as well, like a three-car pile-up of negative emotions.

It’s more common and pervasive than you think – consider the phrases ‘good vibes only’, ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, ‘glass half full’, ‘everything happens for a reason’ and ‘look on the bright side.’ On their own, they’re peppy and motivating – but if they’re the only thing you’re hearing, it can be oppressive and harmful.

Why is toxic positivity harmful?

While there is nothing inherently wrong with being told ‘You have so much to be grateful for’ or to ‘look on the bright side’, if that’s the response you’ve been given after telling someone you missed out on a placement you’d really been hoping for, what’s really happening is that your feelings are being invalidated.

In a work environment, if you find you are constantly monitoring your own feelings and reactions in order to present as positive and cheerful, you may be experiencing – and perpetuating – toxic positivity.

Some of the harmful effects of dismissing negative emotions can be:

  • Undermining empathy by dismissing other people’s difficulties
  • Ignoring the underlying problems by ignoring negative feelings
  • Increasing mental anguish and stress by constantly having to present a positive façade
  • Feeling isolated
  • Superficial relationships because no one feels they can respond authentically.

When teachers feel pressure to conform to a workplace that prides itself on its positivity, it can have a knock-on effect on students. Learning in an environment where everything has a ‘positive side’ can discourage open and authentic discussion, impacting on academic performance and potentially denying students the opportunity to open up about negative feelings and experiences that are impacting them.

How to avoid toxic positivity

The best way to avoid toxic positivity in a school is to ensure that the workplace culture acknowledges that negative emotions are not only normal, but acceptable. If you want genuine connections between staff, never enforce a ‘positive vibes only’ rule.

If someone wishes to share a negative feeling, don’t try to downplay it or try to help them see the ‘positive’ in their situation. If you can’t help, just listen.

Remember, admitting that there is not a ‘silver lining’ to every situation doesn’t mean you still can’t find solutions or ways to improve.

Avoiding toxic positivity is about embracing authenticity. By allowing people to share their real feelings without fear of having their mental state questioned or dismissed, a school can be a healthier and more resilient community, free from the ‘bright side’ of toxic positivity.

Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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