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 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 media services. I found that my Facebook posts were mostly receiving overly positive comments, even when I shared negative experiences.”

To see if her experience was shared by others, Lecompte-Van Poucke retrieved a total of more than 700 Facebook posts and thousands of comments and responses about a rare medical condition known as Endometriosis. She then studied the linguistic structure of posts and comments, looking for evidence of toxic positivity.

As she argued, 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 inbred warrior’, ‘Walking is medicine’, ‘I am not my disease’ or ‘You are a fierce lioness’, was the most common. of everything.

The next most prevalent 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 images such as ‘warrior’ or ‘lioness’ in the online social network represents people with Invisible Chronic Conditions (ICC) as in control of their own destiny or as able to prevent their body gets sick in the first place,” says Lecompte-Van Poucke. “Instead, this can come across as dismissive and distant.”

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

For people facing 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. Although shared experiences of chronic illness can make for satisfying conversations, they can also leave you feeling disappointed and unheard.
  2. Switch to a different social networking site. Some platforms are more controlled and useful than others. Try to find a small group with competent administrators who carefully check the content that is published.

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

  1. Think before posting. Before you share a post, comment, or reply, think carefully about how your words might sound and write them as if the person were sitting across from you. It’s best to use phrases that start with ‘I am’, such as ‘I’m sorry/sad/surprised that…’ when expressing feelings of compassion.
  2. Be aware of hidden meanings. Phrases like ‘Hold on!’, ‘You got this!’ or ‘You are a warrior!’ can send a signal to people that you are not interested in what they have to say.
  3. Be authentic. Being authentic may seem a bit risky at first. However, once you start using your own words (not auto-suggested answers, for example), communicating with others online becomes much more satisfying.

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

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