A Psychologist Teaches Us How To Avoid Using Toxically Positive Language Online

New research shows how people cross the line with saccharine social media comments.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 27, 2022

A new study published in Applied Corpus Linguistics addresses the fine line between helpful and potentially hurtful comments on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.

Psychologist and lead author of the new research, Margo Lecompte-Van Poucke, explains her inspiration for the study:

"As a social media user, I was constantly confronted with toxic positive language on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networking services. I noticed that my Facebook posts mostly received cookie-cutter comments that were overly positive, even when I shared negative experiences."

To see whether her experience was shared by others, Lecompte-Van Poucke retrieved a total of 700+ Facebook posts and thousands of comments and replies around a rare medical condition known as Endometriosis. She then studied the linguistic structure of the posts and comments, searching for evidence of toxic positivity.

As she hypothesized, Lecompte-Van Poucke found many linguistic patterns that could be characterized as toxic positive language. The symbolic pattern of 'X is Y,' such as 'You are an endo warrior,' 'Walking is medicine,' 'I am not my illness,' or 'You are a fierce lioness of a woman,' was the most common of all.

The next most frequent form of toxic positive language were commands such as, 'hang in there,' 'have faith,' or 'don't give up,' telling users what (not) to do and how (not) to behave.

"The use of images like 'warrior' or 'lioness' in the online social network depict people with Invisible Chronic Conditions (ICCs) as in control of their own fate, or as able to prevent their body from getting ill in the first place," says Lecompte-Van Poucke. "This may instead come across as dismissive and distant."

In other words, claiming that you have 'everything you need to beat this' in reply to a post of someone asking for support often does more harm than good. Such language may even prevent people from accepting the reality of their diagnosis and can impair their ability to process the negative thoughts and emotions that come with the diagnosis of an illness.

For people grappling with an environment of toxic positivity, the author has the following recommendations:

  1. Be aware that there is a lot of toxic positivity on social media. This will help adjust your expectations when communicating with other users. Even though shared experiences of chronic illness may result in satisfying conversations, they may also leave you feeling disappointed and unheard.
  2. Switch to a different social networking site. Some platforms are more controlled and more helpful than others. Try to find a small group with competent administrators who carefully check the content that is being posted.

Furthermore, Lecompte-Van Poucke offers the following words of advice for people who wish to minimize their usage of toxic positive language, even in cases when it is accidental:

  1. Think before posting. Before sharing a post, comment, or reply, think carefully about how your words may come across and write it as if the person is sitting in front of you. It is better to use phrases that start with 'I am,' such as 'I am sorry/sad/shocked that…' when expressing feelings of compassion.
  2. Be aware of hidden meanings. Phrases like 'Hang in there!,' 'You've got this!,' or 'You are a warrior!,' may send a signal to people that you are not interested in what they have to say.
  3. Be authentic. Being authentic may feel a bit risky at first. However, once you start using your own words (not auto-suggested replies, for example), communicating with others online becomes much more satisfying.

A full interview with psychologist Margo Lecompte-Van Poucke discussing her new research can be found here: A psychologist explains how to not be toxically positive with your online messages