Toxic Positivity

I used to have a poster in my classroom that said “Good Vibes Only.” It was one of the free posters from the book fair-teachers will know what I’m talking about. (For the rest of you, they send display posters with the book fair that you get to keep. The veteran teachers will call dibs as soon as the book fair is set up. Pro-tip: When you volunteer to help set up the book fair you get first dibs on all the posters). But I don’t display that poster anymore. Now I will fully admit I am one of those “Pinterest” teachers who redecorates their classroom every year and that was one of the reasons the poster was taken down. But more importantly, I no longer agree with the sentiment.

Good vibes only implies that only your happy self is welcome here. Not your sad self, or your frustrated self, or your anxious self. Now this is a very fine line in a middle school classroom-I did keep the poster that says, “lose the ‘tude.” I want my students to have healthy coping strategies, to behave in ways that are appropriate for the school context, but I also want them to know there is space for them to be frustrated, sad, or anxious. They don’t need to be fake happy whenever they’re in my classroom.

Fake happy. That’s why society now has the phrase ‘toxic positivity.’ It’s the idea that as humans we are obligated to put a positive spin on everything. You are pressured to find the bright side instead of being allowed to acknowledge the things that are sad or hard or lonely. It’s like in the movie Inside Out where Joy always wants to be leading over Sadness, Anger, Fear, or Disgust. I won’t spoil the movie, but I’m sure you can guess that it simply isn’t possible for Joy to always lead. Maybe it’s even good to let the other emotions take a turn.

To clarify, this doesn’t mean we become stuck in our negative emotions. What it is is recognizing that it is ok to feel sad when things are actually sad. Anxiety is not something that needs to be banished at all costs. There is no shame in being triggered after experiencing a real trauma. Of course, we are going to work towards returning to a place of contentment and stability, but toxic positivity expects that you get there pretty much immediately. It’s why people feel pressured to say things like, “I’m learning just how strong I am” instead of “I’m still devastated and I don’t know when it will get better.”

Toxic positivity isn’t just something we see in children’s movies or middle school posters. We also see it sneaking into Christianity. It’s why I didn’t share my own story at church until I felt more stable. Why I didn’t start this blog until I felt like I had gotten to a pretty good place. Why people didn’t share their struggles with me until after they had heard my story. It’s easy to feel like you have to have the solution before you are able to talk about the problem.

I first noticed it in song lyrics. Here is the chorus from Scars by I am They.

So I’m thankful for the scars
‘Cause without them I wouldn’t know your heart
And I know they’ll always tell of who you are
So forever I am thankful for the scars

When I first heard it I thought, “absolutely not. ” No, I am not thankful for my scars. If anything I am thankful that they are now scars and not gaping wounds. My scars are a reminder of the absolute worst moments of my life-when I came home to find a suicide note on the kitchen table. No part of me will ever be thankful for that. Not even a little bit.

But I also don’t love the line, “cause without them I wouldn’t know your heart.” This is nitpicky, I know, but to me this is implying that God needed this person to experience deep suffering before that person could have a hope of connecting with God. That is not the God I serve, nor is it a God I am particularly interested in getting to know. I am not thankful for my scars, and I don’t think God expects me to be.

God doesn’t expect us to be fake happy, to shove all of our negative emotions away and frantically try to find some mythical bright side. So I much prefer Rend Collective’s Weep With Me.

What’s true in the light
Is still true in the dark
You’re good and You’re kind
And You care for this heart
Lord I believe
That You weep with me
Yeah, You weep with me.

This shows a God who is there to weep with us when we are hurting. A God who doesn’t expect us to come when things are better but a God suffers alongside us. And that’s a relief. Like the hymn says, “If you tarry ’til you’re better, you will never come at all.” This is the great comfort we have with Christ, that no matter what the suffering we are never alone. Later on in Weep With Me it repeats a line that was my constant prayer during early grief, ‘You know I believe. Help my unbelief.” There was no pressure to have it all figured out, to have already learned some great lesson borne out of suffering. I could be in the mess with God right beside me.

The most dangerous part of toxic positivity is that it makes it more difficult for people to share their true feelings. K. J. Ramsey summed it up best in her recent Instagram post, so I’ll let her have the last word.

“I wonder how much less anguish we would experience in suffering if the church treated suffering like a story to tell rather than a secret to keep until it passes”

7 thoughts on “Toxic Positivity

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your heart and thoughts! I think there is slowly a realization coming in about toxic positivity and it’s impact on mental health/well-being in society in general, and hopefully in the church as well. It’s so hard because for me, with dealing with past loss and pain and grief, there is some part that doesn’t like the uncomfortable feelings and thoughts and wants to be happy and not feel how badly things hurt- so the toxic positivity ‘good-vibes only’ mantra sounds like a good way to quickly (and maybe unhealthy) way to manage things. But confronting the hard stuff and accepting the negative for what it is is part of the healing process (I’m assuming because I’m personally still working on it!).

    After reading this post I had to go back and read the full lyrics of ‘scars’. And now, I have to wonder about the musicians perspective. Before when I would listen to the song, I took the perspective as in we should be thankful for our hardships and pain because it draws us closer to God. Granted, in my own extremely painful experiences, I did draw closer to God, but I don’t know if I can say I’m thankful for them. I don’t know if I can say I’m thankful for those scars.
    However, I just read the full song lyrics and I have to wonder if the authors weren’t talking about something slightly different. Could they be talking about the scars of Christ? The sacrifice Jesus made on the cross? Are they talking about darkness, hopelessness, and brokenness that one can have in their life before knowing who Jesus is, who God is, and what salvation means? Okay, I don’t know if I’m getting to it right, but could it be written from the perspective of somebody talking about their lives before they accepted the greatest gift of Jesus in their lives? And we can be thankful for HIS scars, the ones he took on the cross because that means we know the sacrificial love of God? By looking at the scars of Jesus, that right there shows greatest love. Truly, I don’t know what my life would be like if I didn’t know who God is or his great love that he gave Jesus to die and give me hope.

    It’s something I need to think about more, but if I look at the song thankful for Jesus’ scars and not mine, wow, the song takes on a whole new view for me.


    1. I think that’s the most complicated part of this whole process because, like you, my painful experiences did also bring me closer to God. That’s who God is-God redeems even the most painful situations but I don’t think God needs those situations to draw closer to us. God desires relationship with us and will draw close to us in any situation good or bad. I love the idea of being thankful for Jesus’ scars-I’ll have to re-listen from that perspective!!


  2. I did psychiatric internships in both college and graduate programs at Western State Psychiatric Hospital near Pittsburgh in the early 1980s. It was very common in morning rounds to attend the bedside of a heavily sedated patient whose chart would say “morbid” grief or “hysterical” grief, both clinically acceptable terms of the era. People who their family, church, caregivers, others would commit them to the locked wards because their grief and mourning made others, family, the church, the community. Uncomfortable to be around. Hence they were drugged with in essence horse or animal dose psychotropics. Either that or electro shock or both.

    The problem is that for most of the 20th century our society and culture have accepted a clinical medical model of grief and mourning. An emotional/anxiety issue that needed to either be medicated or “cured” by this or that stuff from the dark ages. And this model and understanding has found itself embedded in the modern church and churchy folks by and large. Church folks tend or want to be kind, acceptable and loving, but on their terms and understanding. Hence when they are lacking something chipper or nice face things to say they tend to say nothing, or avoid the person in the midst of crises, pain or grieve. For we really don’t know what to say and tend to avoid those uncomfortable encounters. And we assume that the “experts”, the doctors, the medical community, the helping professions will do the heavy lifting with church folks in pain, grief and mourning. And like the cancer patient, show back up when you feel better and can sing in the choir again or babysit in the nursery. Protestant clergy by and large, Presbyterians are proficient at two skill sets. Forming book clubs and organizing meetings and committees. Unless they have had clinical or specialized training in either counseling, therapy or crises intervention modules, methodologies. Most also tend to shy away from the heavy lifting with church folks in crises, and will tend to refer out to other health care professionals. And 9 out 10, that is likely the best thing to do in those situations.

    I think that as the church, big C, in general becomes more aware and more comfortable as faith communities with those who do not always feel happy, chipper, or “I have the Love of Jesus to keep me happy”, type folks in the pews we are becoming a better or more healthier place to be. But not all churches or houses of faith will or even try to get there. And yes those churches, pastors, communities can be indeed toxic. And I counsel folks in those places to flee, leave, as in now. There are over 16,000 churches or faith communities in the US. Find that place that will accept you or anybody on your terms, where you are now. They do exist. Closer than you think. God is with you on that path of faith and discovery.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree-I think it’s shifting as people become more aware of the complexities of mental health and the Church starts to acknowledge the relationship between faith and mental health. I’m happy to be part of the conversation and even happier it’s a conversation faith communities are more and more willing to have.


  3. Interesting take. I would prefer to drop the term toxic positivity which is fakery and promotes more diagnostic labels. I like your conclusion which I would restate as genuine empathy matters-both ways. Let’s call that GEM. My goal every day with everyone.


  4. This one speaks directly to my soul and is one of many reasons I adore you. In my world when I am so in tune with these concepts, you remind me to have FORCE in advocating for my own social emotional needs in addition to my tribes’.
    You know how torn I still get about how my own scars are just evidence that maybe my unwavering faith all a facade. That I didn’t pass His test. I failed miserably. But these are fleeting moments and I know that, although it is taking me so much longer than I ever thought it would, there will be a time when I will get there. I may have not needed my scars to know and love God, but my scars eventually will be a huge part of the way in I come back. Therefore, they will impact what my new faith will look like.
    Thought-provoking. Thank you.


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