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Toxic Positivity

  • So I'm going to play around with different ways of doing this, but I am going to post some of my notes for prepping for this class, related articles/reading, images, podcasts... Whatever I come across. I'll do this as I go, in "chunks" because a. that's how my mind works and b. that way people can add their own thoughts and discuss it piecemeal because that's just a more organic way of having a discussion, and that's what this project is all about.

    Okay, so one of the things I did for the first time I did this group, was have breakout sessions in smaller groups to discuss examples of toxic positivity. Some potential themes, depending on interest:

  • The Secret
  • "I don't see color"
  • Tone policing
  • Myth of meritocracy
  • Bootstrap theory
  • Spiritual bypassing
  • "Just think positive"

    Add your own ideas in the comments!


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Here is a good article on spiritual bypassing.

One thing I like to do towards the beginning is defining terms. What is spiritual bypassing? (First I ask the group, and fill in details as needed).

Let's come up with a working definition together. What is your understanding of the term? What are some examples?

Another problem with the idea of "positive" and "negative" is the false binary they impose on reality. Reality is nuanced and complex, with many shades of grey. A thought that might be helpful in one moment can be problematic the next or in another context. What helps one person may be harmful to another. (That's one reason we discourage giving advice in groups).

One thing that comes to mind are the coping mechanisms that I developed as the result of prolonged trauma. It was self-protective to numb unbearable feelings, either with substances or dissociative responses, when I had little control over my own life and bodily autonomy. Later in my life, however, these tendencies became maladaptive. But labeling the behavior as "bad" or "negative" doesn't acknowledge the context, and presents it as a personality flaw rather than a normal and rational response to the situation, which just adds to shame, which just kept me drinking, which led to more shame, etc.

(Trying to come up with a good discussion or journal question here ... Check back later)

I like the language I have been exposed to from the secular buddhist group I attend.  There is attention to suffering - which can be anything that makes us uncomfortable, sad, ambivalent, angry, disappointed, .. the full spectrum of "negative".

There is discussion of skillful and unskillful actions - skillful actions do not cause suffering. unskillful actions cause suffering for yourself and others.

I like these terms because they are neutral - there is no judgement - and they are accurate in their description. It also depersonalizes the context - if someone uses unskillful speech - for example, there is no name calling in pointing that out - it simply focuses on the behavior - how does the person move closer to skillful speech? Or what would skillful speech look like?

Just for your reference - the group I referred to earlier is Portland Insight Meditation It is Buddhist Psychology without any of the spiritual dogma - no prayers, talk about reincarnation, etc. Robert Beatty is the founder of the group and a really wonderful leader. Here is a link to some of his work: