A Psychologist Explains How To Not Be Toxically Positive With Your Online Messages

Psychologist Margo Lecompte-Van Poucke explains how stereotypical phrases hidden behind exclamation marks may be less than helpful.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 21, 2022

A new study published in Applied Corpus Linguistics addresses a common problem faced by netizens: unrealistic optimism, also known as 'toxic positivity.'

I recently spoke to psychologist Margo Lecompte-Van Poucke, the lead author of this research, to understand how being overly positive can come across as dismissive of people's real struggles and hinder acceptance of reality, authentic living, and genuine compassion. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What is toxic positivity? What inspired you to investigate the topic?

Toxic positivity is closely related to the concept of unrealistic optimism, which is a type of bias that happens when people assume that negative events only happen to others and that they can control the future based on their present actions.

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

This is why I decided to analyze a fairly large sample of language used on the SNS to see if the grammar of toxic positive language would show any common patterns and to explore the reasoning behind the users' comments and replies.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone struggling with authenticity due to an environment of toxic positivity?

It is important to realize that the use of toxic positive language is rather common on social media platforms and to adjust your expectations when communicating with other users. Even though shared experiences of chronic illness may result in satisfying open conversations, they may also leave you feeling disappointed and unheard.

A better understanding of the linguistic characteristics of toxic positivity may encourage people to use more affirmative language online, to consider the other person's reality, and to think carefully before responding, instead of resorting to clichés or overused phrases which, in the case of Facebook, automatically appear as suggestions.

Or you could switch to a different SNS altogether, preferably a smaller group with competent administrators who carefully check the content that is being posted, without constantly spewing generic quotes themselves, of course.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people using toxic positive language?

I would like to encourage anyone using toxic positive language to refrain from doing so. When you are about to share a post, comment or reply on a SNS platform, especially as a member of an online support group, please think carefully about how your words may come across and write it as if the person is sitting in front of you.

Even though you may have the best of intentions, stereotypical phrases like 'Hang in there!', 'You've got this!', or 'You are a warrior!' send a clear signal to people that you are not interested in what they have to say and, instead, prefer to hide behind cheap exclamation marks.

Being more authentic may feel a bit risky at first but, once you start using your own words (again), communicating with others online becomes much more satisfying and, if this does not feel safe to you, you can always send a private message or organize to meet up for a cup of coffee.

What was the methodology of the study? What would you say were your most important and interesting findings?

As a linguist specializing in social semiotics, my aim for the study was to find out when, how and why two public Facebook pages, Endometriosis Australia and MyEndometriosisTeam, which both offer support and raise awareness about the chronic condition, and their users use toxic positive language.

With the help of Facepager, I retrieved a total of 704 posts and thousands of comments and replies, added to the pages between January 2020 and November 2021, and explored their grammatical structure following Systemic Functional Linguistics, a theoretical framework developed by the British linguist Michael Halliday.

To find out about people's reasoning behind the opinions they shared on the pages, I took a closer look at the structure of their arguments.

My analysis revealed several common patterns in toxic positive language, the most important one being the highly symbolic pattern 'X is Y', as in 'You are an endo warrior', 'Walking is medicine', 'I am not my illness', or 'You are a fierce lioness of a woman.'

Commands are another frequent grammatical feature of forced positive language, such as 'hang in there', 'have faith', or 'don't give up', telling users what (not) to do and how (not) to behave.

Furthermore, 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, which may be linked to the ideology of positive thinking and neoliberal ideas constituting the individual as homo economicus, a rational subject who manages their own body with successful outcomes, or as homo preventicus, able to prevent their body from getting ill in the first place.

How does forced/toxic positivity affect any feeling of genuine compassion?

The use of identifying grammatical constructions ('X is Y') does not invite other users into an equal dialogue around ICCs and may instead come across as dismissive and distant, effectively silencing the voices of people in distress.

Claiming that 'everything you need to beat this is within you' in reply to a post of someone asking for support because they are dealing with relentless pain, fatigue or other typical endometriosis symptoms does not exactly provide the person with any concrete tools to overcome these issues.

The types of reasoning behind toxic positive language use may unveil users' real attitude towards other people's suffering. Apparently, responders often argue from 'a position to know', posing as experts supplying medical or lifestyle advice.

Another common argument is the 'appeal to pity,' with users commenting that their own experiences with the disease are far worse, which reduces the original poster's suffering to insignificant.

Of course, there are plenty of 'ad hominem' attacks (criticisms directed against a person rather than what the person says) as well, directly questioning the veracity of other users' statements or stories. As for the Facebook pages, their emphasis on fundraising is often characterized by the 'appeal to wealth' reasoning, with celebrities being featured as exemplary health gurus.

What linkages did you find between social media and toxic positivity?

Quite a few people with ICCs follow Facebook pages aiming at raising awareness and supplying medical information. They often feel socially isolated and try to alleviate this perceived disconnectedness by joining several online communities, desperately seeking support and advice.

Unfortunately, this also makes them more vulnerable to harassment, disinformation, or other forms of abuse. People tend to use SNSs to look for and consume positive content, which is a very self-centered activity.

Due to the inevitable social distance between users, they will be strongly inclined to use platitudes when responding to other users' statements of adversity because it saves time and simply seems like the politest thing to do, without realizing that their replies may come across as dismissive of the original posters' need for support.

The Facebook pages' aims often collide with their users' motivations as well, leaving people with an even deeper sense of alienation, especially when overwhelmed with a never-ending stream of excessively positive quotes and images.

Do you think toxic positivity hinders authenticity and acceptance of reality?

I am afraid that the current abundant use of toxic positive language on SNSs may prevent some people from accepting that diseases can be chronic and incurable and that a diagnosis of illness inevitably comes with negative thoughts and emotions, as well as ongoing physical and mental suffering.

My research has revealed a clear need for the exchange of more authentic experiences and the use of more affirmative language in online chronic disease communities.

For example, when replying to someone's comment about a pain experience, it is better to use phrases that start with 'I am', such as 'I am sorry/sad/shocked that...', expressing feelings of compassion, or with 'It is sad/horrible/wonderful...', describing the situation. This will redirect attention to the person at the receiving end of the exchange and stand a higher chance at meeting their need to be heard and seen.

Do you have plans for follow-up research?

At the moment, I am doing research on how people use linguistic and visual resources for the construal of emotion on social media based on appraisal theory, derived from Systemic Functional Linguistics and introduced by James Martin and Peter White.

I am especially interested in the study of collective intersubjectivity, including how groups of users on SNSs such as TikTok or Reddit evaluate other people and various concrete or abstract objects using diverse modes of communication, such as language, image, or gesture, within a large variety of contexts.

The ideological polarization surrounding issues such as Covid-19 vaccinations or other topics that generate strong sentiment is another fascinating area of investigation. This research calls for the use of large samples of online language use, requiring further development of computer-assisted appraisal analysis.