The #1 trait of an optimist? The ‘toxic positivity’ trend taking over social media? The Optimism Doctor answers all
“Good vibes only.” “It could be worse.” “You’re not manifesting enough.” Sound familiar? As the Optimism Doctor, I hear from a lot of distressed patients who have had these platitudes doled out to them time and time again—only to leave them feeling worse. That’s because these blanket “positive” statements are actually the opposite of optimism—they’re likely harmful, insincere notions of optimism known as toxic positivity.
Before we dive further into that, let’s define optimism.
Most people think that optimism is about being positive and seeing the glass half full all the time. But in reality, a true optimist is someone who recognizes that less-than-ideal situations happen in life, yet they see them as temporary and something they have the ability to overcome—even if they don’t know how yet.
The #1 trait of an optimist is resilience, or the ability to work through perseverance and struggle while holding space for painful emotions like grief, anger, frustration, mourning, anxiety and stress. It’s about allowing yourself to authentically feel those things and where they come from, while staying hopeful and knowing that it’s not permanent.
The second hallmark trait of an optimist is curiosity. It’s being able to ask questions like “I wonder how I will grow from this” or “I wonder what will change from this” during a time of strife, and being inquisitive and open to what the answer might be. Someone who can hold both the struggle of the present with curiosity for the future simultaneously is an optimist.
How do you identify toxic positivity?
It’s basically anything that disregards and villifies the normal range of human emotions. Red flags might be sayings like “good vibes only” or “get over it,” which imply that there’s only room for positive feelings. Humans are meant to experience all the feels, so watch out for anything that disregards or makes you ashamed of having negative feelings.
For example, I experienced two instances of toxic positivity at the start of the pandemic. The first was when parents were worried about their kids. I kept hearing this phrase, “Don’t worry, kids are resilient.” And yes, they are, but to chalk it up to only that implies we don’t have to be concerned about their emotions because they’ll just get through it.
The next was when people would say, “If you’re stressed, you’re just making yourself more susceptible to COVID-19.” This caused some to feel scared of having anxiety about a global pandemic, since others were telling them they were going to get sick from it. This is classic toxic positivity—it comes from good intentions, but it’s misguided because it negates the opportunity to experience all emotions.
Here are some additional toxic positivity-like statements you’ve probably heard before that can be interpreted as dismissive in nature:
- Don’t be so negative.
- Just breathe. It’ll all work out.
- Think happy thoughts.
- Everything happens for a reason.
- You’ll get over it.
How to recognize—and give—non-toxic advice.
When someone is seeking support or advice, we often think that we need to help them solve a problem, squash their uncomfortable feelings or distract them with thinking about something better. But for the most part, people just want to be heard and have their feelings validated.
These sincere, truthful and kind responses offer support, while also acknowledging pain and struggle:
- All vibes welcome.
- This is hard, but you got through hard times before. I believe in you.
- It’s normal to be fearful about that. Is there any good that can come out of the situation?
- I can understand why you’re upset. Is there any way you’ll grow from the situation?
- It’s OK if you haven’t found the silver lining yet. You have time to make sense of it and you will when you’re ready.
Healthy, positive statements like these that can help lift others (or yourself), while validating the entire spectrum of emotions—good, bad and ugly. So now that you can better spot toxic positivity, consider unfollowing any problematic offenders on social media who claim they’ve manifested their perfect life. We all know there’s no such thing as a “perfect life,” because no one experiences joy 24/7—and that’s totally, 100% normal.