Too much of a good thing: Avoiding toxic positivity, especially during a pandemic

By Lisa Paciulli and Maria Gallardo-Williams

At the end of 2020 we should all have gone to get matching tattoos that said “we survived”. Just kidding. But barely. The past year has been really hard on faculty and students all over the world, and NC State is no exception. What started as an emergency remote teaching situation has morphed into something that feels more permanent but still has all of us existing in a kind of limbo between what used to be and what comes next. While new coping strategies are constantly emerging, we are learning about some previous strategies that may no longer work.

Toxic positivity is the idea of responding to everything with a positive attitude, and how that may not always be appreciated (Scully, 2020). Replying in a positive manner sounds like a good modus operandi because being positive is better than being negative, right? Well, not always, and especially not now during a pandemic. For instance, when asking a colleague how they are doing pre-pandemic, they may have responded with a typical, “Fine, how are you?” Now though, you may be more likely to get a different response such as, “Ugh, this pandemic virtual home-schooling is for the birds! It is really decreasing my productivity”. Telling the person, “Well, at least our kids still get to go to school unlike in other countries where they do not have the technology for virtual schooling,” may not be the best received response. Another example is when you hear a student lamenting that they really miss going to parties on the weekend and/or just hanging-out with friends maskless. Telling the student to, “Just hang-in there! The pandemic is not going to last forever!” could be another less-than-ideal response.

Why are these positive comebacks not so great for the recipient? First, always answering positively may make the person on the receiving end feel worse. On top of the feelings they were initially experiencing, they may now also add ungratefulness, pessimism, etc. to their growing laundry list of feeling unwell. Consider how a sense of ungratefulness and/or pessimism is not going to make anyone feel better. People may also sense that the feelings they expressed are not being validated and/or that they are being trivialized and dismissed too cavalierly (Quintero, 2019). This is another way to push confidants further toward despair instead of away from it.

Maybe what most of us need at the moment is some gentle validation. Instead of pushing a forced positive response, we can try letting the person speaking know that we hear them, and we can understand their frustration. After all, we are all in this experience together, this strange event that is affecting everyone, and although the end might be in sight, we still have a lot of uncertainty ahead of us.

Some suggested comebacks that might work better for current expressions of stress are:

  • “I hear you.”
  • “I understand.”
  • “That’s a lot to deal with.”
  • “I can see why you might feel this way.”
  • “I would feel the same way.”