Toxic Positivity & The Decline of UX

by Darren Hood

A photo of a young lady pretending to be happy, illustrating toxic positivity

Take a trip in time with me — back to the late 1990s or so. I had recently become involved in web, logo, and graphic design (and getting my feet wet, so to speak, in what we now know as UX design) and was immersed in such software applications such as Ulead Photo Impact and the Corel suite to get my visual design work done. In those days, social media wasn’t a thing yet. Newsgroups were all the rage. If you wanted to learn something, that was the place to be. You could interact with anyone and converse all day long about anything. It was in those newsgroups that I had an encounter that changed my life forever (for the good).

I was learning quite a bit across several design forums and made it a point to engage often. One day, when discussing certain design methods and getting some tips, someone made a statement that crushed me. He said the following:

“When you get serious about design, you’ll want to look into Photoshop.”

My jaw dropped. My heart sunk. I was speechless. My shock level was off the charts. I thought I was serious about design. Those words struck a chord deep within my heart. My ego was bruised, but the more I thought about what the person said, I had to admit he was right. I wasn’t going to get anywhere using Ulead Photo Impact. I loved Corel Draw and Corel Photo Paint, but Photoshop was “king” in visual design spaces, so I had to face the facts that greater things awaited me if I just humbled myself and dove into the world of Adobe.

Fast forward to 2021. Today, I’m in the same position as the person who made the aforementioned “earth-shattering statement.” What I am finding, unfortunately, is that most folks don’t mirror my interest in embracing such statements.

In other words, when you tell some folks that their tire is flat (metaphorically speaking), they coil up, engage in denial, take the statement personally, and/or become resentful towards the messenger. They see the input as negative. They’d rather be praised and coddled, basically ignoring something that needs their attention, never realizing the self-destructive nature and eventual result of their behavior.

That response is the focal point of this post. It’s reflective of what’s known as toxic positivity (TP). By definition, according to the Smarter and Harder Blog, TP refers to “ignoring, covering up, or invalidating (what amounts to) negative feelings and experiences.” The site goes on to state that “Ignoring or invalidating them (negative feelings) with toxic positivity presents us from processing those feelings and leaves them to fester. It’s uncomfortable, but necessary that we feel things like guilt, anger, grief, worry, and shame.”

Psychology Today chimes in on the handling of negative emotions and toxic positivity saying, “When you deny or avoid unpleasant emotions, you make them bigger. Avoiding negative emotions reinforces this idea: Because you avoid feeling them, you tell yourself that you don’t need to pay attention to them. While you are trapped in this cycle, these emotions become bigger and more significant as they remain unprocessed. But this approach is simply unsustainable.” Basically, by refusing to deal with things that go against the grain of your psyche, such a person is actually lying to self. Just think of what would have happened to me if I’d taken the person’s recommendation about “when I get serious about design” personally and failed to embrace them from a constructive perspective. It’s possible I would not be writing this blog post today.

UXers, in order to grow one’s skill, knowledge, and acumen, it is critical to have a strong sense of self-awareness and, at times, thick skin. We need the ability to embrace constructive criticism (i.e., feedback that helps to build us), ESPECIALLY when embracing the “uncomfortable” statement yields huge returns for one’s personal development.

Today, UX is suffering and the discipline, as a whole is on a massive decline. Much of this decline can indeed be traced back to toxic positivity and the unwillingness of many practitioners and up-and-comers who don’t want to be told that they lack certain skill and knowledge. Such folks don’t want to be told that their portfolio lacks proper structure or examples. Such folks, coupled with a sense of entitlement, get upset about the challenges associated with landing their first UX gig (even though newbies in any discipline experience the same things).

Photo of people having a difficult conversation
Photo of people having a difficult conversation

These folks blame and attack the messenger. They avoid anyone who criticizes them. They engage in slanderous and libelous behaviors. They avoid the true seniors and flock to those who don’t trigger the negative emotions that arise through the other encounters, but they’re basically covering up what they need to be facing and avoiding necessary and fruitful engagement. They choose do to THOSE THINGS instead of embracing the statements via critical thinking, identifying the value, building relationships (when possible) with the sources, and moving forward. They choose to engage in toxic positivity. The individuals suffer AND the discipline of UX suffers because of the heightened dysfunction.

There IS a better alternative and everyone benefits when it’s chosen.

Conclusion

When I began my UX journey, I embraced those who preceded me. I valued them. I listened to them. I learned from them. If they criticized me, I took what they said patiently. I would ask questions and seek to understand what they were saying. This kind of an exchange was normal. It was healthy. It was beneficial. By challenging up-and-comers, such as myself, it helped the discipline to flourish.

In 2021, this dynamic is no longer the norm. As a result, the positive and perpetual dynamic that existed years ago has been stymied, largely due to toxic positivity and the hypersensitivity that lies at its core. In 2013, I started telling people that UX was under siege (will explain that another time). Now, I’m bringing the onslaught of toxic positivity to light. It’s not too late to right the ship.

Want to be successful? Want the discipline of UX to flourish? Toxic positivity must be renounced. Without it, the current decline will continue.

You can hear more from the author by checking out The World of UX with Darren Hood wherever podcasts are available.

Darren Hood: UX pro (20+ yrs), adjunct professor, international conf. speaker, founder of Kaizen UX Consulting & Education, & host of The World of UX podcast