Can positivity be toxic? We’ll investigate the concept of toxic positivity. From this, we'll learn how we can communicate authentically. 

What is toxic positivity? 

‘Toxic positivity’ is a relatively new term. It refers to positivity to the point of excess. It is predominantly a social media phenomenon. But, it has bled into our behaviour in daily life. Ironically, it fosters a negative culture. One that denies lived experiences and alienates people from a sense of community.

When do I need to be aware of toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity can crop up in a few different ways:

On social media

Instagram is notoriously a highlight reel rather than a window. It’s your prerogative to post whatever you want on social media. You may use your own feed as a way to motivate yourself. For example, if you’re documenting your fitness journey. Nobody has any obligation to anyone else to post lowlights. We can be as private or public as we want. Each person is responsible for their own self-esteem. 

However, it’s best to keep in mind that social media doesn’t reflect real life. If someone is open about their struggles, it’s likely it helps them to simply document it. If they want a response, it's likely an empathetic one. Toxic positivity can invalidate someone's lived experience.

In the workplace 

Airing concerns or struggles in the workplace can be really nerve-wracking. Often, we are afraid of appearing unprofessional. We fear being judged negatively. This is the perfect opportunity to practice active listening. Active listening is taught in Mental Health First Aid

Active listening looks like this:

  • Giving someone space to air their feelings without interrupting
  • Showing signs verbally and nonverbally that you’re listening
  • Asking questions
  • Respecting the person’s feelings

It shows empathy instead of enforcing positivity to toxic levels.

In ourselves

We are our own worst critics. Sitting with one’s feelings is one of the most difficult skills to learn. Toxic positivity could hinder emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence means being able to express our emotions. With it, we handle our interpersonal relationships with empathy and good judgement. We can’t do that without having a good relationship with ourselves. 

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re struggling with negative thoughts. Acknowledge them neutrally and with curiosity. Ask yourself what you would say to a friend feeling the same way. It’s likely you would be empathetic and respect their feelings. Not deny the negative feelings altogether. Try to do the same thing for yourself. 

How does this apply to my content? 

It’s natural to emulate what we see online. But, going overboard on the ‘positive vibes’ may affect your content. Of course, you should communicate in the positive. Fear-based advertising will likely reflect poorly on your brand. It’s best practice to steer clear of negativity whenever possible. However, you could easily come across as unrelatable. 

The key is knowing the difference. 

Positive branding 

Toxic positivity goes overboard. It minimises real human experiences. Positive branding is both warm and authentic. Humanising your brand makes it much easier to connect with your audience. 

Building a community 

Positive branding applies to your social media activity. Grow a community. One that really hears people’s problems. This benefits both your customers and yourself. Customers who feel heard will feel connected to your brand. Having good listening skills as a brand makes it easier to identify pain points. Ultimately, this will improve your service. 

How can I make my writing more empathetic? 

Empathetic communication encourages open questions. Guidance around empathetic communication encourages open questions. They show you understand how the person feels. There are a couple of ways we can apply this to writing for an audience.

Keep your audience in mind

Everything starts with forming customer personas. Customer personas are fictional characters. They reflect your typical customer or customers. They aren’t just made up. You have to do the foundational research. This is to understand how your customers behave and interact with you. Once you understand what their common problems are, you can address them. It will inform your sales content and resources. 

Hubspot has an excellent resource for buyer personas. It forms a clear image of your audience in your head. This makes it so much easier to empathise with and write for them. 

Find the right tonal balance

When you’re proofreading any content, it’s important to check its tone. 

Readable’s tone and sentiment tools help you to optimise your content for positivity. Using our sliders, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of your language.

You can also check for personalism. This means addressing the reader. Instead of making too many ‘we’ statements, address them as 'you'. This helps you to bring your audience closer.

Empathetic positivity in customer success

I asked our Customer Success Champion, Natasha, about this topic. Empathy is one of her many superpowers. 

L: What do these types of positivity mean in Customer Success?

N: This is a great question because the two are very different! Toxic positivity ignores a customer’s issue. It can demean their struggle and discourage openness.

If a customer feels uncomfortable bringing a problem to you, they’ll go elsewhere. It is important to remain positive. But you should also acknowledge pain points. Try to imagine how you would feel in that same situation.

Keeping things upbeat doesn’t mean we gloss over the issues. It means we approach things with a solution-focused mindset. It is important that customers feel heard. The key to empathetic communication is always to listen first. Understanding the issue before responding is key.

We are all facing different challenges in our lives. Toxic positivity doesn’t leave room for the wide spectrum of human emotion and experiences. Instead, lead with kindness and understanding. This way, your message will automatically be a positive one. 

How to write with authentic positivity

To summarise:

Laura Kelly

Laura is a freelance writer and worked at Readable for a number of years. Laura is well-versed in optimising content for readability and Readable's suite of tools. She aims to write guides that help you make the most out of Readable.