New Psychological Research Teaches Us How To Be Positive Without Being Toxically Positive

A new study published in Applied corpus linguistics addresses the fine line between helpful and potentially hurtful comments on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

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

“As a social media user, I was constantly exposed to toxic positive language on Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networks. I’ve noticed that my Facebook posts have mostly received overly positive comments, even when I’ve shared negative experiences.”

To see if her experience was shared by others, Lecompte-Van Poucke pulled a total of over 700 Facebook posts and thousands of comments and replies about a rare condition called endometriosis. She then studied the linguistic structure of the posts and comments, looking for evidence of toxic positivity.

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

The second most common form of toxic positive language was commands like “hang in there,” “have faith,” or “don’t give up,” telling users what (not) to do and how (not) to behave.

“The use of imagery such as ‘warrior’ or ‘lioness’ on the online social network portrays people with invisible chronic diseases (ICCs) as being in control of their own destiny or able to prevent their bodies from becoming ill in the first place. says Lecompte-Van Poucke. “It can come across as dismissive and distant instead.”

In other words, when you claim in response to a post from someone asking for support that you “have everything you need to beat this,” it often does more harm than good. Such language can prevent people from accepting the reality of their diagnosis and can interfere with their ability to process the negative thoughts and emotions that accompany a diagnosis of an illness.

For people dealing 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 you adjust your expectations when communicating with other users. While shared experiences of chronic illness can lead to satisfying conversations, they can also leave you feeling disappointed and unheard.
  2. Switch to another social network. Some platforms are more controlled and helpful than others. Try to find a small group of competent administrators who will carefully review the content posted.

In addition, Lecompte-Van Poucke offers the following advice for people who want to minimize their use of toxic positive language, even in cases where it’s done inadvertently:

  1. Think before you post. Before sharing a post, comment, or reply, think carefully about how your words might come across and write as if the person is sitting in front of you. It’s better to use phrases that start with “I am,” such as “I’m sorry/sad/shocked that…” when expressing sympathy.
  2. Pay attention to hidden meanings. Phrases like “Hold on!”, “You can do this!”, or “You’re a warrior!” can signal to people that you’re 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 (eg, non-auto-suggested answers), communicating with others online becomes much more satisfying.

A full interview with psychologist Margo Lecompte-Van Poucke about her new research can be found here: A psychologist explains how you can’t be toxically positive with your online messages

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