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Pop Psychology Book Club, Episode Two: Toxic Positivity by Whitney Goodman

Carrie Ott-Holland

Welcome back to Pop Psychology Book Club! In this episode, we’re talking about toxins. Specifically, a type of toxin that the EPA, CDC, OSHA, and even Britney Spears have failed to recognize. And yet billions of people may be contaminated every day. Yes, we’re here to talk about Toxic Positivity.

In case you’ve forgotten: This is a column where I read popular press psychology and business books in search of quotes, metaphors, models, and ideas that can provide additive value to I-O psychologists. In our last episode, I covered A New Way to Think: Your Guide to Superior Management Effectiveness by Roger L. Martin, which tied for our readers’ top-choice pick. In this episode, I’ll be covering the next top-choice pick.

V1_Emotional_Wellbeing_SIOP_TIP_online_ad_160x600pxlsThe book: Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy by Whitney Goodman

The background: Whitney Goodman is a psychotherapist who owns a private therapy practice in Miami, Florida. She runs the popular @sitwithwhit Instagram account and has been featured in a broad range of popular press publications, including The New York Times, Teen Vogue, New York Magazine, InStyle, and Good Morning America.

The general idea: Toxic positivity, as popularized by Goodman, refers to the idea that people are expected to demonstrate positive emotions, even in the face of difficult situations. Here’s what toxic positivity looks like in practice: Imagine a person in a genuinely painful situation (e.g., losing a job), and then imagine their friend telling them what a “great opportunity this will be” and how “it really could be worse.”

Regardless of the friend’s intent, they are demonstrating toxic positivity by invalidating the pain the person is experiencing and asking them to fast forward through the normal progression of processing negative emotions.

To combat toxic positivity, Goodman suggests we need to identify when positivity can be problematic, learn healthy ways to process emotions, provide more meaningful support to each other, and focus on our values over our happiness. Below are some insights I found applicable and insightful for I-O psychologists.

Three Ideas I-O Psychologists Can Use

1. There Are Several Situations Where Introducing Positivity Is Likely to Be Unhelpful and Inappropriate.

Goodman outlines the top issues wherein positivity may be unproductive and inappropriate:

  • Infertility and pregnancy loss
  • Grief
  • Illness and disability
  • Romantic relationship struggles
  • Family estrangement
  • Career trouble or job loss
  • Physical appearance (e.g. losing or gaining weight)
  • After a traumatic event
  • Pregnancy and parenting
  • Racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, sizeism, classism, and other types of prejudice
  • Mental health issues

According to Goodman, we should realistically expect people facing these challenges to feel pain and suffering and should avoid imposing a “silver lining” on their experience.

I-O takeaway: How might organizations anticipate events of this type in the workplace so that employees can find the support they need? Goodman’s recommendations serve as a starting point for some aspects of allyship and encourages us to consider a broad range of situations where people may question the lived experiences of others.

2. Showing Effective Support for Others Requires Two Main Skills: Good Listening and Strong Boundaries.

Goodman suggests that to show effective support, people need to focus on their listening and boundary-setting skills. She describes good listening as looking for what a person is struggling with, what resources they have access to, what they’ve already tried, and what they need at the moment (which may not be a solution). Good listeners provide validation, avoid offering solutions, and share times when they felt the same way to help normalize the person’s reactions.

The flip side of good listening is setting boundaries when you don’t have the energy, resources, or qualifications to assist someone. This involves assertive and compassionate communication (“I’m so sorry this is happening. I had a rough day and can’t be the best support to you right now, but let’s schedule a time for coffee this week.”) Goodman notes that boundaries are helpful to everyone involved, including the person in need of support who can then find others who can provide it more effectively.

I-O takeaway: These skills are incredibly worthy topics for managerial and leadership training—listening and empathizing with others are critical to success in these roles. But this got me wondering: What would organizations look like if all employees were expected to develop and use these skills? How much more effective would salespeople be? How much more supported, included, and cohesive would employees feel working with one another?

3. Taking a Values-Driven Approach Can Provide a Healthy Alternative to the “Toxic” Happiness-Driven Approach.

The book suggests people who take a happiness-driven approach to life tend to believe painful and negative thoughts need to be eliminated. They also tend to believe that those who haven’t achieved happiness simply haven’t put in enough effort. Goodman offers a values-driven life as a better alternative: Living by our values can motivate and ground us, even though this approach comes with both happiness and pain.

I-O takeaway: Organizations tend to have varying degrees of success with communicating difficult news to employees (e.g., every CEO layoff email in 2023). By framing difficult messages in terms of organizational values, leaders can convey something of shared importance without trying to falsely imbue a silver lining.

Should I read the whole book? Most of the content fell squarely into the “self-help” category, so read it if you’re interested in this topic for personal reasons—but there aren’t many organization-level takeaways beyond what I’ve mentioned in this column. I did appreciate how the book’s  premise had an interesting overlap with familiar I-O constructs (emotional labor, hedonic vs. eudaimonic well-being) but also pushed beyond the boundaries of how those constructs are traditionally explored in our field. That said, you certainly don’t need to read the book to grasp Goodman’s topic and perspective.

That’s a wrap! Vote on the Episode 3 Pop Psychology Book Club book by July 15. You can fill out the short survey here.

Want to read past columns? You can find the pilot column here and episode 1 here.

Have you read Toxic Positivity? I’d love to discuss over email: c.ottholland@gmail.com

Until next time!

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