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How Christians May Harm Others With Toxic Positivity

Carola is a Christian writer and author of several books. She writes about Christian living, relationships, and other related topics.

The terms “toxic” and “positivity” Do not seem to go together. Aren’t we Christians supposed to be upbeat and promote positive thinking? Aren’t we supposed to support hurting people by putting an upbeat spin on their situations? As a Christian and health writer, I see this topic popping up more frequently.

Some of us feel pressure from fellow Christians to be happy and cheerful all the time. It does not matter what horrible things are going on in our lives; we are supposed to grin and bear it.

It is easier to promote positive thinking rather than dealing with painful issues. We push ourselves to “trust God” as the solution to all our problems and feel guilty if we do not. Positivity says that we should be happy and optimistic in every situation. It sounds like a good thing but becomes toxic when it encourages us to ignore negative emotions and promotes an unrealistic view of life.

The Harmful Effects of Our Toxic Positivity on Others

There are times when a few positive words can be comforting and uplifting. Positive comments can help people to have hope and uplift them when they feel discouraged. However, positivity is only helpful if it meets the needs of others.

In some situations, positivity can be harmful. Here are some ways that positive statements become toxic.

Toxic Positivity Is Dismissive

“Time heals all wounds.”
“It can’t be that bad.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“It could be worse.”

The quotes above reflect the damage that toxic positivity can do. When people are going through a hard time, They may need a listening ear and a chance to vent their anger and righteous indignation. They may look to us to validate their experience and trust us to help them. When individuals are deep in depression or grief over terrible events such as the loss of a loved one, the last thing they want to hear is statements like those above.

It Encourages People to Deny and Suppress Their Emotions

“Don’t worry. Be Happy.”
“You will get over this.”
“This situation should not be making you angry.”
“Jesus tells us not to worry.”
“Stop complaining. Think about your blessings.”
“You need to move on.”

Toxic optimism encourages people to suppress negative emotions and denies people the opportunity to feel sadness, experience hurt feelings, or become angry. It encourages people to ignore the way they are feeling and minimize their pain. This means that they cannot process their emotions and heal from them. Toxic positivity may appear as an excuse to avoid issues and negative experiences. It may be used to avoid dealing with other people’s disturbing emotions.

It Induces Guilt and Shame

“You should not be talking like that.”
“Christians should not be depressed.”
"You know better than to do that."

Sometimes we unintentionally make people feel guilty and ashamed of their negative feelings.

Does not Meet People’s Needs

Saying, ““Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” is useless to people who need food and clothing (James 2:15-16).

Can Hurt Relationships

People share their negative feelings with us, trusting us to handle the knowledge in a mature way. If they come to us to express their grief and rage after loved ones have been killed by a drunk driver, for example, they do not need people telling them that they will get over it and the pain will lessen with time.

Optimism does not address their needs. They may probably resent us and distance themselves from us. They will not feel safe enough to trust us and share their struggles with us.

What We Should Be Doing

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. Frustration is better than laughter because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.
-- Ecclesiastes 7:2-4

Mourn With Those Who Mourn

There is a time for mourning as well as rejoicing (Ecclesiastes 3:4). We do not mourn the same way as people who do not have hope but grieve nevertheless. Positive affirmations are probably not going to help when the people in our lives are facing challenges like these:

  • Mourning the loss of a loved one
  • Dealing with chronic illness or cancer in loved ones or us
  • Facing financial ruin
  • Losing something they value
  • Experiencing mental health challenges
  • Dealing with horrific news
  • Betrayal by someone they trusted

There are many instances in the Bible of people struggling with negative emotions. It even has a book named Lamentations! Job railed at his situation. David poured out his sorrows, grief, and anguish in over half the Psalms, especially Psalm 13. When Jesus went to the garden of Gethsemane, he said his soul was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death (Matthew 26:36-38).

Accept People As They Are

Everyone is at different levels of spiritual maturity. We all struggle in different areas. We should not judge them or make them feel guilty for their negative feelings. We can show empathy by trying to understand their emotional experience instead of brushing them off.

Recognize and Meet People’s Needs

Instead of firing off a platitude or cliché, we should discern what people need when they are in a negative frame of mind. Do they just need to vent anger and other negative emotions to someone who will not judge them? Do they just want us to listen to them? How can we be helpful and supportive by offering something such as babysitting or a meal? We are to help carry other people's burdens (Galatians 6:2).

In the book Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering, bestselling author Tim Keller uses scripture and personal stories to help us understand human pain and suffering.

Be Positive in a Healthy Way

We should be thinking about things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable (Philippians 4:8). We should encourage people when they are down and point to our hope in Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:11). We should be joyful because of the hope we have in Christ, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer (Romans 12:12).

We can be positive overall because we have a loving God, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and hope for the future. We must also face that we and others around us will go through times of uncertainly, fiery trials, and loss. We need to be careful to ensure that our words are helpful and not toxic to us or others.

References:

The Holy Bible, New International Version
Toxic Positivity and Negative Thinking. Seattle Christian Counseling, David Hodel
Confronting Toxic Positivity in Church, jillianbenfield.com, Jillian Benfield
Why Christians Should Beware The Trap Of Toxic Positivity, heraldandhym.com, Dale Chamberlain
Toxic positivity and Christian hope, Ethos, Cheryl McGrath

Comments

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on July 26, 2021:

This is a very good article! Being positive is good and needed but being overly positive becomes ignorant. And yes, chasing happiness is a never-ending engagement. On top of which, "happiness is over-rated".

All the best!

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