I don’t remember where I came across this book but I am glad I did. It’s not perfect, of course, but it is useful, and that’s more important. Toxic Positivity is a book* that helped me label what I felt when people go on with truisms and platitudes. It’s written by Whitney Goodman who is a therapist and the stories in the book are her own experiences. On one hand, the book told me that I am not the only one who feels this way and on the other, I realized where I did this. This is why I like this book even though I question a lot of how it’s written.
The premise is this: when people are sharing problems, they are often looking for someone to just listen to them without judgment. Further, they are especially not looking for someone to just spout out platitudes. I have heard enough of them to make me stop sharing anything at all with family or friends. You know the type, and the book will give you enough examples to make you cringe.
Given my experience, I am careful about using those platitudes with people. I have realized that often people just want someone to listen; not solve problems. They are perfectly capable of solving their problems and don’t want someone to take that choice away. I have learned that people sometimes ask what they want, and if they don’t, I should ask how I can help them. I was doing rather well until I found out, to my horror, that I was not doing this with my family. While I took care of this when talking to my reports at work, I didn’t follow those principles at home. I believe getting into management transformed me as a person but some of my habits or behaviors at home transformed later than others.
This is why reading the book is useful to me, someone who has experienced this first-hand all my life. We all have blind spots and given the definition, we don’t know about them until someone points them to us. This is what happened to me and I realized more about this when I read the book.
That said, I think the book swings too far on the pendulum towards completely avoiding positivity. I am through five chapters and the first four seemed like a crusade against positivity. I suppose the author felt that this is required because (toxic) positivity is so deeply entrenched in our habit that there needs to be an equally strong push towards the other direction.
While I could relate to a lot of things in the book, I was completely alien to other parts. The author goes into some of the histories of how the positivity culture developed over the years (the book goes into religious history hundreds of years back and Darwinism). Some of the effects described in those sections feel exaggerated to me. Maybe it is entirely accurate and it is just my experience that doesn’t match (given my own culture and perspective). To me, it felt that the author is swinging towards a balance and crossing it far into the realm of negativity. There are a few sentences introducing thoughts of balance but they are few and far between.
For example, the author talks about positive traits such as gratitude. While there are enough platitudes (like “be happy for your problems”, “others would be happy to be in your shoes”, “think positively”), there is certainly a benefit to being reminded to be grateful. I felt that the author downplayed the benefit. Yes, there is a time and place for everything. And yes, some people are too eager to help (or maybe too eager to say something) and they jump in prematurely to remind someone to be grateful. That doesn’t mean that gratitude is the problem. To be fair, the author doesn’t deny this but I feel that it was downplayed in the book.
I am hoping that the book recovers the swing and goes towards a balance. I just finished the fifth chapter that covers some of the techniques we could use to process our emotions and feelings (the difference between emotions and feelings and the physiological response is explained elaborately here). It’s hard to determine the target audience for this book. Of course, the target audience is everyone as everyone deals with emotions and are subjected to toxic positivity to various degrees.
My takeaways from the book boil down to this: listen and then wait to act. We sometimes rush to say something, anything, not considering if it is actually helpful to the person. We may do it because we are eager to help (with something) or we don’t want to listen to them or are just plain lazy but feel like we have to say something. It is difficult for me to imagine someone actually believes the positivity platitudes they say and those are precisely the parts in the book that I have trouble relating to.
Despite the problems, I recommend reading this book* and reflecting on how often we do this with family, friends, colleagues, and other acquaintances.
* Amazon Affiliates link