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Toxic Positivity Can Harm You Financially

by | Jul 31, 2023 | *Financial Awakenings, Financial Therapy, Healthy Money Relationships, Money Psychology, Weekly Column


Positive thinking about money can be beneficial. It can also be harmful if it leads us to suppress our emotions or avoid financial realities. This dark side of being positive is described in a Psychotherapy Today article referencing a book titled Toxic Positivity by psychotherapist Whitney Goodman.

Toxic positivity is the belief that we should always remain upbeat, even during tough times. This can be a way to deny or avoid unpleasant realities. It can lead us to say well-intentioned but harmful things like “Don’t cry!” or “Time heals all wounds,” which actually invalidate someone’s genuine feelings.

If you answer yes to any of the following questions, you might be caught up in toxic positivity.

  • When you feel emotions like sadness or fear, do you immediately try to cheer up or focus on the bright side?
  • If you’re dissatisfied with something in your life such as your salary level, do you feel guilty for not being grateful enough for what you have?
  • When your loved ones are upset, do you try to cheer them up, even if they haven’t asked for it?
  • Do you often use phrases like “everything happens for a reason,” “try to find the positive,” or “at least it’s not as bad as it could be” to help others feel better?

When we encounter financial setbacks and losses, it is okay to feel sad, angry, or scared. These are normal and appropriate human emotions.

For instance, when I receive bad financial news, I tend to envision the worst-case scenario and work backward from there. My wife calls this “going to the dark side.” She has learned that the best way to support me is to listen without judgment and avoid telling me everything will be fine. Before I can consider possible courses of action, I need to process my emotions fully.

Pressuring ourselves or others to be positive at all times with glib “don’t worry” statements is harmful because it invalidates our feelings and sends the message that we’re not allowed to feel sad, angry, or scared. This can be shaming and hinders us from processing our emotions in healthy ways.

A more helpful alternative is to listen without judging. Offering support can simply mean validating someone’s emotions (including our own) and being present without giving advice.

For example, say you didn’t get a raise you wanted and felt you deserved. Try the following approach:

  1. Acknowledge your feelings: “I’m feeling sad, hurt, angry, embarrassed, and tired.”
  2. Validate your feelings: “It makes sense that I feel this way considering how hard I work and how much I wanted it.”
  3. Sit with your feelings: “Today, I’m giving myself guilt-free permission to feel the hurt and anger and really sit with this emotion.” Doing this successfully means letting go of “the story” you are telling yourself and just being with the feeling.
  4. Explore unmet needs: “What unmet needs am I experiencing that are driving this difficult feeling?”

In the middle of a financial disappointment like this example, the last thing you need is advice to “cheer up” or “look on the bright side.” You are more likely to need someone to listen and support you as you work through your emotions. Once you have done so, then you may be ready to start considering options for moving forward in a positive way.

During difficult financial times, allow yourself to feel your emotions, and don’t hesitate to seek support from caring individuals. Bottling up feelings while you try to focus on the money issues will only make things worse. The emotions are crucial for making sound financial decisions that support your overall wellbeing.

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