When Optimism Becomes Toxic Positivity

When Optimism Becomes Toxic Positivity March 7, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about where positive thinking goes bad. Multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) sparked that entire train of thought for me. They share so many similarities with toxic Christians that I can’t help but be fascinated by them. One aspect both groups share is toxic positivity. Today, I’ll show you what that is–and why it’s so bad for us.

happy smiling masks
(vietdungbk1984, CC-SA.)

What Is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity is optimism and cheerfulness taken way too far. I spotted the term recently in this Australian news article about the emotional devastation MLMs wreak on their participants. It made so much sense to me!

When people fall into the trap of toxic positivity, they start thinking that the only valid way to go through life is with a cheerful demeanor and endless optimism. They avoid any and all negative emotions as well as any situations or people that might inspire such emotions. And they are convinced that they can make literally anything they want happen just through the power of positive thinking.

Negative emotions–particularly those evoking pessimism and criticism–become dread enemies. People who fall into toxic positivity think that negative emotions can destroy their plans and prevent their dreams from coming true.

So these folks’ whole lives consist of trying to cram positivity into themselves and actively avoiding any hint of negativity.

Now, that already probably sounds like a pretty bad way to go through life. But several really bad groups make toxic positivity the central pillar in their life teachings.

“Positivity as a Defense Mechanism.”

Long ago, while researching one of the Halloween marriage posts, I ran across a Christian lamenting her single status. Midway through the piece she came out with something that really caught my eye:

It’s recently been called to my attention that I use positivity as a defense mechanism. Oh, I was angry when I heard that. Fearful. Indignant. Convinced the person telling me that HAD to be mistaken. I’m just a positive person! I argued. If I don’t look for the silver lining…what is the purpose to the bad things that happen?! If I choose to let in the darkness and the sadness and the REALNESS… . . . Won’t it make me a…SHUDDER…negative person?!??!

Like her, I wondered how positivity could possibly become a defense mechanism.

But I didn’t wonder it for very long. All I had to do was think about Han Solo and his famous line, “Never tell me the odds!”


Star Wars.

That Christian lady describes how this mindset operates. If she doesn’t maintain a super-positive demeanor and outlook, if she allows a single bit of “REALNESS,” into her mind and life, then she becomes that worst-of-all-worst-things in her tribe: a “negative person.”

See, her tribe knows exactly how to deal with negative people.

She has very good reason to be afraid of being seen as one.

Attack of on the Dream Stealers.

Toxic positivists (as opposed to our community’s very wonderful Positivist) separate themselves from their own emotions. And they also separate themselves from people who voice criticisms of their plans and ideas.

MLM leaders very dramatically call such folks “dream stealers.”

I’ve heard some truly WTF explanations from these leaders for why someone might become a “dream stealer.” It reminds me very much of the stuff toxic Christians say about ex-Christians. Very often, these “dream stealers” are an MLM victim’s closest friends and dearest family members. They’re the people close enough to see the many horrifying changes that come over MLM victims as their cultish indoctrination nears completion.

(The profane genius behind the blog Married To An Ambot almost got dumped by her husband, the titular onetime Ambot, over her hostility to his fakey-fake “business.” From the sound of things, Amway leaders have caused any number of breakups. And so have all the other MLMs out there.)

Resources abound online from MLM leaders about how their victims should deal with “dream stealers,” too. Notably, all of these faux-explanations and terrible suggestions come from people who stand to make money from MLM victims’ continued involvement with these scams.

The Darker Sides of Toxic Positivity.

Toxic positivity involves never admitting any negative thoughts or influences into our lives. The idea is that if we do that, then we’ll feel happier and our brimming confidence will lead us to great triumphs.

On the flip side, if we allow negative thoughts or influences into our lives then we’ll be very sad for no reason. Our lack of confidence will spell the doom of all of our projects.

And there’s no real evidence that either side of these assertions is actually true.

In fact, a lot of the stuff that gets stuffed down our throats as “self-confidence building” actually backfires. Greatist shares some studies demonstrating that exact point:

One study found that when people think others expect them not to feel negative emotions, they end up feeling more negative emotions more frequently. Another study found that people with low self-esteem who repeated a positive self-statement (“I’m a lovable person”) ended up feeling worse than people who didn’t repeat the phrase.

A recent paper, “The ethics of positive thinking in healthcare,” concluded much the same.

Self-Blame and Denial.

That backfiring effect is also what brought us a 2012 New York Times story about 21 fire-walkers who got seriously burned at a Tony Robbins event called “Unleash the Power Within.”

One of the participants, Andrew Brenner, lamented a previous firewalk he’d made when he got burned. “I wasn’t at my peak state,” he said. He told his local news site that “faith and concentration” were the keys to completing a firewalk, and he’d lacked those. So of course he blamed being outside of his “peak state” for his injuries.

By extension, though, Brenner seems to have been blaming the 21 fire-walkers who got burned for being outside of their own “peak state.”

If someone wasn’t in the right frame of mind, they got burned. Of course they did. And if they got burned, didn’t they kinda deserve it, in this ideology?

A Real-World Example.

That’s what we see when MLM victims finally wash out of their scam of choice. They usually blame themselves, not the scammy predatory industry they got sucked into. Their recruiters certainly indoctrinate them that way.

The conventional wisdom of MLMs — as put forward by the leaders of these scams — is that anybody can succeed with one if they just work hard enough and believe in the goal. So if someone doesn’t succeed, they obviously didn’t work hard enough or believe hard enough.

If you ever ask a parroting MLM-bot if that means 99.9% of MLM participants just don’t work hard enough to succeed or fail to believe in their goal, since that’s how many victims fail to earn a good living with any MLM, you will get back a very irritated-sounding YES of COURSE.

But that won’t happen to that MLM-bot. Oh no. For sure not. This one works super-hard! And they totally visualize success all the time! No stinkin’ thinkin’ for them! Ever!

Cancer and Mandatory Fun.

One of the most insidious ways people abuse positive thinking might be in how they engage with cancer sufferers. Cancer patients get told constantly that their attitudes and beliefs shape their fates. And yes, finding some kind of meaning in suffering might well help us endure that suffering. But as that ethics paper put it,

Very often, patients’ autonomy is violated. Sadness and stress in the face of adversity is a normal response, yet cancer patients are usually overly pressured not to feel sad. Joy becomes an obligation, and the concept of “mandatory fun” has an uncanny totalitarian aspect: patients are deprived of their emotional autonomy, and are forced to feel in a particular way.

These patients then have the added burden of disappointing their loved ones and doctors, on top of the burdens of dealing with the cancer itself! They’re not even allowed to feel sad about their situation.

The American Cancer Society flat-out declares that attitude doesn’t have any bearing on how the disease goes, but for some reason these whackadoo ideas live on. (I’m guessing they make the sufferers’ loved ones feel better at least.)

And the Quack Cures.

Also, this positive thinking mindset informs a number of quack therapies for cancer and other diseases. Many of them rely on victims maintaining utter belief in the quack “cure’s” effectiveness. As a Center for Inquiry paper tells us,

Myth: If a person believes strongly enough, any cure can work. Americans have a great deal of faith in the human will to live and mind-over-matter beliefs. And, there is no question that positive thinking has some benefit- especially in the quality of life. The question is how far can the mind go in curing organic diseases?

As they point out, if belief in a given cure was all it took to get cured, literally anything would cure cancer.

However, that’s not what we see in the real world.

The Miracle That Never Comes.

In Christianity, as well, we run into this mindset of toxic positivity. I’ve known way too many people who prayed and prayed and prayed for miracles who didn’t get them — and then got blamed for their lack of healing.

When I was Christian, doubt numbered prominently among our god’s many dealbreakers. He seemed quite petulant that way! If any one Christian in a group experiences even a smidgen of doubt, he refuses to work his magic. Christians must believe super-duper-hard that miracles will happen, or else they just won’t. Didn’t get your miracle? Obviously you must have doubted too much!

In Christian-Land, nobody’s allowed to admit to any feelings of negativity. The tribe views such admissions as weaknesses in the complainer’s faith and resolve. Worse, shows of negativity contradict the product these groups offer for sale. Many groups push a Happy Christian Illusion at potential recruits. It’s a potent siren call, especially for authoritarians who don’t know just how many exhortations exist online trying to push Christians to conform with that marketing.

The Goal That Can’t Be Reached.

Christians aren’t allowed, either, to concede that maybe their goals weren’t reasonable at all in the first place. They’re not allowed to change course to something more reasonable. That’s why I now know of half-a-dozen specific fundagelical women who never got married or had children despite wanting that life. They’re now past menopause, but still think their dreams will come true: a tall, wealthy, virginal Christian man will drop into their laps and Jesus will make them fertile again.

It’s also why I knew any number of aged Pentecostals who were all convinced that the Rapture would come in their lifetimes. Their faith in this idea was rock-solid. I remember being shaken by it at the time — because how could they be so sure unless it really was going to happen? But they’re all dead now, and the Rapture hasn’t happened.

Certainty in a given idea isn’t a measure of its truthfulness.

Faith in an unreasonable goal won’t make the goal more possible to reach.

Wanting something very, very much doesn’t make it more achievable.

There’s a happy middle ground between that kind of toxic optimism and total negativity, and that’s where we can engage with our desires, realistically assess our resources and abilities, and pursue goals that we can actually reach.

This Is NOT Fine.

When someone has low levels of self-esteem and confidence, or very real obstacles to success, self-help mantras only bring more misery.

A long time ago, I read an account of a reporter who attended a “body positivity” conference in her town. The advice she got there involved looking at herself naked in a mirror and telling herself she was beautiful. She needed to do this as often as it took to convince herself. However, she felt silly doing it. She didn’t, in fact, think she was beautiful. In fact, she felt that lying to her own self about her appearance wouldn’t change anything about it.

And that led her to realizing that feeling “beautiful” wasn’t actually a deep, pressing need for her in the first place. And really, why should it be? Isn’t that entire need something perpetrated and impressed upon women by a society that cares nothing for our actual needs?

She escaped lightly. This form of denial captures so many other people in so many other bad groups. It can keep us in bad situations for way too long, sitting at our tables amid our house fires and telling ourselves, “This is fine.”

the this is fine dog
See the full comic here along with an interview with the artist, KC Green.

But it’s not fine.

Crossing the Line.

When positivity becomes denial and lying to ourselves, that’s when it crosses that line into toxicity.  When a sunny outlook keeps us from recognizing real obstacles and accounting for them, it becomes an obstacle in and of itself. And when optimism refuses even to admit solid criticisms of our projects and ideas, that’s when we run into serious trouble.

Barbara Ehrenreich flat-out calls positive thinking a “mass delusion” in her book Bright-Sided. Karen Cerulo, in her own book Never Saw It Coming, discusses how our entire culture indoctrinates people to focus on good outcomes while ignoring bad ones as even a possibility. Who knows? Maybe we’re finally becoming a bit more realistic in how we look at ourselves and our world.

If so, it couldn’t happen at a more necessary time. Our ability to compensate for delusional people seems to be growing quite thin these days.

Hey! Maybe we should stand it up in front of a mirror and lie to it about how robust it is. That’ll fix everything, I hear. Haven’t you heard? It’s the power of positive thinking…

NEXT UP: The Secret is out. Right out! See you next time.


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