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‘Toxic Positivity’ Review: A Negative Experience

3 Stars

Cover for "Toxic Positivity" by Whitney Goodman.
Cover for "Toxic Positivity" by Whitney Goodman. By Courtesy of Penguin Random House
By Beatrice H. Youd, Crimson Staff Writer

In her new self-help book “Toxic Positivity,” Whitney Goodman attempts to straddle the divide between popular psychology and science. Unfortunately, her delicate balancing act does not always succeed.

Goodman is a popular psychotherapist who rose to fame on her Instagram account @sitwithwhit. She utilizes her platform to share mental health and wellness tips and to draw attention to problematic social media content. “Toxic Positivity” combines her posted observations and her many years of experience as a therapist to investigate the role of positivity in gaslighting and emotional inhibition. She also offers advice for expressing and managing negative emotions.

Goodman argues that society is stuck in a cycle of “toxic positivity”: Emotional distress is dismissed by a knee-jerk response of positivity that shames and silences negativity. Anyone who experiences this emotional invalidation is more likely to respond to others’ distress in the same way, perpetuating the cycle. Goodman declares that this cycle and its detrimental consequences are everywhere, ingrained within every member of this frustratingly optimistic society. Her argument sounds compelling, but the way she presents her evidence is unconvincing and disorganized.

The book is glutted with case studies, all of which aim to support Goodman’s thesis. These studies can be illuminating, but Goodman has a tendency to jump from one to the next in rapid succession, causing the reader to fall into a new character’s story without time to process the psychological implications of the previous story. She provides a short synthesis of each character’s experience, but it’s not enough to fully connect their story to the toxic trend. Devoting time to fewer, more detailed examples might have better served Goodman’s reasoning and prevented the reader from getting lost.

It’s also incredibly difficult to sympathize with those featured in the case studies. Goodman states at the beginning of her book that she withholds certain information about her clients in an effort to protect their anonymity; however, the details become too sparse, leaving her stories without depth and emotional charge. Goodman expects us to remember a wide cast of characters — Michael, Pedro, Tory, Alissa, Alex, Liz, and Annie, to name a few — but it’s far too easy to forget who’s who. How can readers care about the psychological journeys of these characters when they can’t even remember their names?

The self-help portion of Goodman’s book is split into sections that describe different toxic traits, provide responses to certain situations, and ask questions to promote self reflection, often in the form of an itemized list. Although these lists are a valuable way of checking in with the reader, the overuse of bullet points creates a more unpolished product. The short sentences that compose each list read like unfinished thoughts — if they were instead converted into paragraphs with greater attention to detail, the book would more efficiently convey its point. The bulleted lists also do very little to assist the narrative arc of Goodman’s book and often unnecessarily repeat advice across chapters.

“Toxic Positivity” tries to address the superficial and harmful façade of positivity in popular culture and the media. Despite a valiant effort by Goodman, her book’s tendency to sensationalize, lack of organization, and weak narrative arc result in an unremarkable and often unsatisfying read.

—Staff writer Beatrice Youd can be reached at beatrice.youd@thecrimson.com.

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