Toxic Pop Psychology

As therapists, we have a duty of care to be careful around using “positive” or “pop” psychology with our clients, as doing so can disregard a person’s lived experience that is dependent on their race, culture, gender identity and expression, trauma background and socioeconomic status.

Toxic positive psychology can include:

-Telling people to just practice gratitude.

⁃ Encouraging body-based practices as a blanket to all people such as yoga or massage

– Saying that people need to simply self-care more

⁃ Oversimplifying the brain’s response to stress by saying to replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts.

⁃ Preaching that an organic/plant based/whole foods diet, etc. is best for mental wellness.

⁃ Teaching that mindfulness can fix ‘everything’.

Practicing any of the aforementioned can of course be correlated with wellness, and has its place in therapy; however without acknowledging the interplay of complex factors in an individual’s life, and without recognising that not all people live and experience this world equally, these interventions used exclusively, can be harmful.

What’s wrong with gratitude?

Well, nothing is wrong with gratitude as a practice. In fact, it has been shown to improve sleep, enhance relationships, increase self-esteem, and overall psychological health.

However, encouraging gratitude when a person is experiencing social injustices, post-natal depression, depression, anxiety, trauma, or in conflictual/DV relationships, can minimise their experience.

Focusing on gratitude in these instances can silence marginalised voices, and take an individual further away from exploring, healing, or seeking to resolve what is happening in their lives. It also encourages internal conflict where one might question why they feel so sad when they have so many ‘positives’ in their lives they should be grateful for.

Some unhelpful ‘gratitude statements’ might be: “I have never felt safe or emotionally supported by my partner, but I’m grateful that he supports me financially,” or “I’ve experienced discrimination and racism all my life, but I should feel privileged and grateful that I have an education and was able to get a job.”

We can see from these examples that practicing gratitude as a way to ‘tolerate’ something that no longer serves us, or distracts us from healing when that is what we are seeking, does not serve a helpful purpose.

What’s “wrong” with mindfulness?

Again, we know that mindfulness is an effective way to calm the brain and body while helping to build neural structures. This alleviates anxiety, stress, depression, impulsivity and enhances connection and empathy.

However, we need to account for contextual and unsafe environments, crisis situations, and trauma when suggesting that mindfulness is only the key to healing. Due to our body’s and brain’s system of protection, we may have survived by disconnecting, or not be in the present moment at times in order to survive. It is not always safe to unravel this protective mechanism when a person has not yet learned to feel safe in their body, or when a person is still living in a toxic environment or in an abusive relationship.  

Anyone who is in the healing, teaching, therapy, or coaching professions, as well as leaders, influencers and speakers, must understand that many individuals even if they can seek support, do not have access to the same resources, time, education, job-opportunities and earning potential as other who are born into priviliege.

People in therapy are vulnerable to the power dynamic in the therapeutic relationship.We as therapists must be mindful and honour that power differential, by trusting that the client is the expert of their own life. If we provide them only with tools that are set up to fail them, we run the danger of inadvertently setting up our clients to feel like they have failed themselves.

~ Little Window