LearnWhat is Toxic Positivity, and what does it have to do with suicide prevention?

Michelle Zohlman

Michelle Zohlman
writes on September 8, 2020

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week (Sept. 6th- 12th). This is a very important week for me, as I’m sure it is for many of you and our employees at Treehouse. 

Before I dive in, I want to acknowledge this is heavy to discuss. It may be triggering for you. Just writing it has been a bit for me! Please check in with yourself if you decide to continue reading. If at any point you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor or call 1-800-273-8255.

You might be thinking, why does a tech company want to talk about suicide? Maybe you think it’s not our place. Dr. Freeman, a clinical professor at USCF linked higher rates of mental health issues to entrepreneurship. Of the 242 entrepreneurs surveyed, 49% reported having a mental health condition (Biz Carson, Business Insider). Suicide can happen to anyone. It isn’t selective. There are about 132 suicides per day (AFSP). It doesn’t matter someone’s profession, title, or status—suicide doesn’t discriminate. Whether you work in tech or not, we need to break the stigma and make it normal to discuss suicide and mental health. That’s how we can support one another and save lives. 

Personally, I have had folx close to me experience suicide ideation, meaning they thought about killing themselves but they didn’t go through with their plans. I myself have been one of those people. Even though I didn’t know the term at the time, a friend at Treehouse explained toxic positivity as being denied your emotions and forced to suppress it. This gave me an “aha” moment when I realized I have experienced that from others and have been guilty of it myself. 

Most importantly, I learned how problematic it can be. 

You probably have found yourself in a situation where someone shares their emotions, discusses something vulnerable, or shares a hardship with you. Maybe you responded by telling them to “stay positive” or said, “don’t worry about it.” Maybe at that moment, you thought you were supportive by trying to bring positivity, but dismissing what they said was ultimately silencing them.  

Other examples of responses could be…

  • “You’ll get over it.”
  • “It’s not a big deal.”
  • “It could be worse…” 
  • “Don’t think so negatively.” 
  • “It will be fine.”

Toxic positivity denies an emotion and forces us to suppress it. This can cause the person shame, repressed emotions, and a feeling of isolation. You probably meant well with this, but your “encouraging words” are shutting down someone’s pain. Instead, take that time to have a conversation with them and really listen. 

Toxic positivity takes other forms, too. Sometimes we do this to ourselves: we think “I should be happy” or “I should be over this.” Other times, we come across a social media post reminding us to “look on the bright side.” In these moments, I try to remind myself to take the space and time to sit with my valid feelings. 

I’ve been guilty of toxic positivity on these different levels. We all have. It’s not that positivity isn’t important; it is. We need positivity in certain moments. It becomes toxic when we aren’t mindful of the topic or timing. It becomes toxic when we don’t normalize that it’s okay to not be okay. Like I mentioned before, you probably thought you were being helpful, after all that was your intent. Once again, it’s the impact that matters here, not your intent. 

So how does suicide prevention correlate with toxic positivity? When we dismiss what someone is sharing or we see something that is inadvertently telling us to move on it shuts down and suppresses what we or someone else is going through. Whereas if we give space to the person to share, listen to them, and understand what they need, then you know how to help them. 

Here’s what it can look like…

  • “I’m sorry you’re experiencing this, tell me more…”
  • “I’m here for you.”
  • “How can I help?”
  • Direct them to resources if you believe they are suicidal (and/or ask for help).
  • Validate their feelings so they know it’s OK what they’re experiencing. 

Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean you can’t eventually bring a positive outlook on the situation. Sometimes it may be appropriate after someone has shared and has been given space to process to add in some positivity. 

Here are some resources we used to learn about toxic positivity that may be helpful to you, too.

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