Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation may be, people must maintain a positive mindset. It’s a “good vibes only” approach to life. And while being optimistic and positive thinking has its advantages, toxic positivity rejects difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful, often falsely positive facade.
We all know that having a positive outlook on life is good for mental well-being. The problem is that life is not always positive. We all face painful emotions and experiences. Those emotions, while often unpleasant, are important and need to be felt and dealt with openly and honestly.
Toxic positivity takes positive thinking to an overgeneralized extreme. This attitude not only stresses the importance of optimism, but minimizes and denies any trace of human emotions that are not strictly happy or positive.
Forms of toxic positivity
Toxic positivity can take a variety of forms. Some examples you may have encountered in your own life:
- When something bad happens, such as losing your job, people tell you to “just be positive” or “look on the bright side.” While these comments are often intended to be sympathetic, they can also be a way of silencing anything you want to say about what you are experiencing.
- After experiencing some kind of loss, people tell you that “everything happens for a reason.” Although people often make these statements because they believe they are comforting, it is also a way of avoiding other people’s pain.
- When you express disappointment or sadness, someone tells you that “happiness is a choice.” This suggests that if you are feeling negative emotions, then it is your own fault for not “choosing” to be happy.
- These types of statements are often well-intentioned: people don’t know what else to say and don’t know how to be empathetic. However, it is important to recognize that these responses can be harmful.
At best, these statements turn out to be trite platitudes that allow one to disengage from the feelings of others. At worst, these comments end up shaming and blaming people who often face incredibly difficult situations.
Toxic positivity denies people the authentic support they need to cope with what lies ahead.
Why is toxic positivity harmful?
Toxic positivity can harm people going through difficult times. Instead of being able to share genuine human emotions and get unconditional support, people find their feelings dismissed, ignored or outright invalidated.
- It’s a shame: When someone is suffering, they need to know that their emotions are valid, but that they can find relief and love from friends and family. Toxic positivity tells people that the emotions they feel are unacceptable.
- Provokes guilt: It sends the message that if you can’t find a way to feel positive, even in the face of tragedy, you’re doing something wrong.
- Itavoids authentic human emotion: Toxic positivity functions as an avoidance mechanism. When other people engage in this type of behavior, it allows them to avoid emotional situations that might make them feel uncomfortable. But sometimes we turn these same ideas against ourselves, internalizing these toxic ideas. When we feel difficult emotions, we dismiss, discount and deny them.
- This impedes growth: It allows us to avoid feeling things that may be painful, but it also denies us the ability to face the challenging feelings that can ultimately lead to growth and deeper insight.
The mantra of“positive vibes only” can be especially irritating in times of intense personal distress. When people are facing situations such as financial problems, job loss, illness or loss of a loved one, being told to look on the bright side of things can seem downright cruel.
It is possible to be optimistic in the face of difficult experiences and challenges. But people going through trauma don’t need to be told to be positive or feel judged for not maintaining a cheerful outlook.
Signs of toxic positivity
Toxic positivity can often be subtle, but learning to recognize the signs can help you better identify this type of behavior. Some signs include
- Ignoring problems instead of dealing with them
- Feeling guilty about being sad, angry or disappointed
- Hiding your true feelings behind feel-good phrases that seem more socially acceptable
- Hiding or disguising how you really feel
- Minimizing other people’s feelings because they make you uncomfortable
- Shaming others when they don’t have a positive attitude
- Trying to be stoic or “get over” painful emotions
How to avoid toxic positivity
If you have been affected by toxic positivity – or if you recognize this type of behavior in yourself – there are things you can do to develop a healthier, more supportive approach. Some ideas include
- Manage your negative emotions, but don’t deny them. Negative emotions can cause stress when left unchecked,1 but they can also provide important information that can lead to beneficial changes in your life.
- Be realistic about how you should feel. When faced with a stressful situation, it is normal to feel stressed, worried or even fearful. Don’t expect too much of yourself. Focus on self-care and taking actions that can help improve your situation.
- It’s okay to feel more than one thing. If you are facing a challenge, you may feel nervous about the future and also hopeful that you will succeed. Your emotions are as complex as the situation itself.
- Focus on listening to others and showing support. When someone expresses a difficult emotion, don’t shut them down with toxic platitudes. Instead, let them know that what they are feeling is normal and that you are there to listen.
- Notice how you feel. Following “positive” accounts on social media can sometimes serve as a source of inspiration, but pay attention to how you feel after viewing and interacting with that content. If you feel ashamed or guilty after seeing “uplifting” posts, it may be due to toxic positivity. In these cases, consider limiting your social media consumption.
Give yourself permission to experience your feelings. Instead of trying to avoid difficult emotions, give yourself permission to feel them. These feelings are real, valid and important. They can provide insight and help you see things about a situation that you need to work to change.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you should act on every emotion you feel. Sometimes it’s important to sit with the feelings and give yourself time and space to process the situation before acting.
So when you’re going through something hard, think of ways to give voice to your emotions in a way that is productive. Write in a journal. Talk to a friend. Research suggests that just putting into words what you’re feeling can help reduce the intensity of those negative feelings
Toxic positivity is often subtle, and we’ve all engaged in this type of thinking at one time or another. However, if you learn to recognize it, you’ll be better able to rid yourself of this type of thinking and provide (and receive) more authentic support when you’re going through something that isn’t easy.
Start to become aware of toxic affirmations and strive to allow yourself and others to feel your emotions, both positive and negative.