#80 – Toxic Positivity

Unpacking Education February 23, 2022 34 min

While many in education are struggling with the challenges of teaching during a pandemic, they may be met with toxic positivity that feels out of place in the midst of these struggles. According to McKenna Princing in the UW Medicine article, “What You Need to Know About Toxic Positivity,” toxic positivity includes actions that involve “dismissing negative emotions and responding to distress with false reassurances rather than empathy. …It comes from feeling uncomfortable with negative emotions.” While this dismissal may not be intentional or ill-intended, it can add new levels of emotional burden to an already difficult situation.

In this episode, the team explores the concept of toxic positivity and what might be done to address it. The team asks and discusses a series of questions: What is toxic positivity? Why does it happen? How do we combat it? Is it okay to have conflicting emotions about a situation, and is it okay to simply feel bad? These are complicated and important questions. Rena, Winston, and Paul spend time exploring their own experiences as well as relevant research on the topic.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter.

Walt Disney, American entrepreneur


The following resources are available on AVID Open Access to explore this topic in more depth

How Do We Understand, Recognize, and Approach Toxic Positivity?

This is a complex topic with few clear answers. Being positive is healthy and can lead to a healthy mindset. Still, healthy positivity can spiral into toxic positivity at times, and several intentional approaches and actions can begin to reduce the negative impact of an environment that is becoming toxically positive.

  • It’s okay to be sad. Most people are not happy 100% of the time. Sadness is a normal part of the human condition, and it’s important to acknowledge that.
  • Find someone you trust. It’s easier to admit feelings of sadness or vulnerability when you are in the company of people you trust. Identify someone you trust with whom you can share openly and also develop a classroom or school environment where students experience high levels of trust.
  • Allow for diverse feelings. Create check-ins where students or staff are allowed to share conflicting feelings. This may mean offering two words to identify current feelings. These check-ins can even be anonymous.
  • There is no “right” emotion. Be okay with how you are feeling, even if it’s not the emotion that you think you “should be” feeling or that others appear to be feeling at the moment.
  • Model vulnerability. It is powerful to see administrators model vulnerability. This makes it feel okay to feel our authentic feelings and be vulnerable ourselves. The same pertains to our classrooms where teachers can model this for their students.
  • Name your emotions. There is power in identifying and naming your emotions. It is one of the first steps to owning the experience.
  • Toxic positivity is not intentional. It usually comes from a place of genuine caring or a lack of knowing how to respond to a situation. Realizing this can help lead to empathy in all directions. It can also help each person examine their own words and actions.
  • Realize that everyone needs a hug. Everyone feels and experiences a wide range of emotions. This is part of what it means to be human. Even those who appear to be strong and positive likely also feel pain and struggle. This includes administrators and people in leadership roles.

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your teaching team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • How do you define toxic positivity?
  • Where do you see toxic positivity in your work or personal life, and how does this impact you?
  • How might you understand, recognize, and approach toxic positivity?

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