Intro: At a recent NCSS staff meeting, we discussed the difference between positive psychology, which is one of the pillars of the START model, and toxic positivity, which can happen when negative feelings are totally avoided instead of addressed. These two concepts of positive psychology and toxic positivity are often conflated, even with the best of intentions. We asked one of our leadership team members to elaborate on this experience in the blog entry below.

By Jenee’ Lewis-Walker, Psy.D.

A couple of years ago, I attended a thought-provoking presentation entitled Moving from Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces, facilitated by Derrick K. Willis, MPA. This session explored strategies for turning safe spaces into spaces that incorporate honest dialogue to facilitate increased understanding, empathy, and acceptance. Ideally, safe spaces are often perceived as free of bias, conflict, or criticism. Potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations are frowned upon, and retaliation is not permitted. Within safe spaces, individuals are reassured. They are included and heard, and anxiety about emotionally charged events are replaced with acceptance and positive reinforcement. While the concept of safe spaces seems well-meaning, critical, honest dialogues may not occur due to fears of offending or feeling attacked. As such, are safe spaces truly safe, when adversities remain masked and/or unaddressed? Dr. Willis challenged the concept of “safety” and charged participants with courageously creating spaces that facilitate difficult, but necessary and “brave” conversations.

In a world that often feels invalidating at every turn, it is natural to seek spaces that provide positivity, hope, and a sense of solace, but at what cost? The field of positive psychology focuses on the scientific study of human strength and wellbeing. It focuses on understanding and promoting positive emotions, personal strengths, and fulfilling life factors. Environments that utilize these principles seek to focus on the positive aspects of circumstances in an effort to create a sense of hope and resilience. The premise of this theory is that it can promote a sense of safety and hope for the future (Seligman, 2000). However, while adversity is inevitable, safe spaces should not be utilized as an apparatus for avoiding uncomfortable circumstances. When avoidance is pervasive there is a risk for the presence of toxic positivity. According to Tomasulo (2023), toxic positivity is “the belief that one should only focus on positive thoughts and emotions while suppressing or ignoring any negative feelings.” The tendency is to “always look on the bright side, no matter what challenges we may be facing.” The tendency to ignore what requires addressing can breed increasingly problematic and potentially toxic outcomes.

As I reflect on my own personal experiences when tasked with the responsibility of creating a safe space, I can relate to the temptation and at times, the practice of withholding necessary conversations while attempting to preserve the illusion of safety; only to later discover that my efforts to avoid discomfort ultimately resulted in an atmosphere of inauthenticity, misunderstanding, and isolation. I learned that creating inauthentic spaces reduces opportunities for growth, and it can hinder opportunities for improved understanding, true connections, and accountability. When addressing negative circumstances in spaces that are deemed safe, it may be scary, but it is necessary to acknowledge and process negative emotions. If not, pervasive avoidance can be quite damaging and can hinder genuine interactions. If one is not allowed a space to process their full range of emotions, is that space truly safe? If one is not given the opportunity to receive necessary feedback, are opportunities to learn and become better really provided?

How does one maintain an environment that feels safe, but also provides a platform for authenticity?

  • Be willing to be vulnerable and lean into the feeling of discomfort. Discomfort can be important. It is often in those moments that we can learn and grow the most. Allowing yourself and others to experience a full range of emotions without judgement or harsh criticism can lay the foundation for a potentially safe space.
  • Facilitate honest conversations with compassion - “Honesty without compassion is cruelty.” (Bruce Kasanoff). Practice empathy, compassion, and active listening. When providing feedback, allow one the freedom to respond accordingly. Validate expressed feelings. Communicate clear expectations and an openness to receive honest feedback.
  • Practice self-reflection. Practice awareness of your own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Also, be aware of your own strengths and areas of growth. Be willing to explore other perspectives. By increasing mindfulness of the pressure to always be positive, we can begin to dismantle the toxic positivity mindset.

While safe spaces attempt to foster inclusive environments, they may inadvertently prioritize the comfort of others and lead to toxic positivity. When we prioritize authentic dialogue, we can foster spaces where strengths and challenges are both recognized as valid. As facilitators we can support those we collaborate with to embrace hope while legitimizing and navigating the very real challenges that are being faced.


Seligman, M.E.P. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist. 55(1), 5-14.

Tomasulo, D. (2023, October 11). Dark Side of Hope: The Dangers of Toxic Positivity [Blog post].…


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