Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how extreme or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It's a "look on the bright side” mentality and approach to life. There are benefits to being an optimist and engaging in positive thinking, toxic positivity instead rejects and minimizes difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful, often falsely positive, facade.
We all know that having a positive outlook on life is good for your mental health. The problem is that life is not always positive. We all deal with painful emotions and experiences.
And those emotions, while often unpleasant and hard to deal with, are important and need to be felt and dealt with openly and honestly.
Toxic positivity takes positive thinking to an overgeneralized extreme. This attitude does not just stress the importance of optimism, it minimizes and denies any trace of human emotions that aren't strictly happy or positive.
Toxic positivity can take a wide 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 stay positive” or “look on the bright side.” While such comments are often meant to be sympathetic, they can also be a way of shutting down anything you might want to say about what you are experiencing.
- After experiencing some type of loss, people tell you that “everything happens for a reason.” While people often make such statements because they believe they are comforting, it is also a way of avoiding someone else’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 choice and your own fault for not “choosing” to be happy.
Such statements are often well-intentioned—people just don't know what else to say and don't know how to be empathetic—but harmful. At their best, such statements come off as trite platitudes that let you off the hook, so you don’t have to deal with other people’s feelings.
At their worst, these statements end up shaming and blaming people who are often dealing with incredibly difficult situations.
Toxic positivity denies people the authentic support that they need to cope with what they are facing.
Why It’s Harmful
Toxic positivity can actually harm people who are going through difficult times. Rather than being able to share authentic human emotions and gain unconditional support, people find their feelings dismissed, ignored, or outright invalidated.
- It's shaming: When someone is suffering, they need to know that their emotions are valid, but that they can find relief and love in their friends and family. But toxic positivity tells people that the emotions they are feeling are wrong.
- It causes guilt: It sends a message that if you are not finding a way to feel positive, even in the face of tragedy, that you are doing something wrong.
- It avoids 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 on ourselves, internalizing these toxic ideas. When we feel difficult emotions, we then discount, dismiss, and deny them.
- It prevents growth: It allows us to avoid feeling things that might be painful, but it also denies us the ability to face challenging feelings that can ultimately lead to growth and deeper insight.
The “positive vibes only” mantra has become particularly grating to many in light of the COVID-19 global pandemic. During the pandemic, people have faced illness, lockdowns, shelter in place orders, business shutdowns, working from home, homeschooling challenges, job loss, and financial struggles.
People are faced not only with massive disruptions in their lives, but also pressure to stay productive and be positive during a time that is difficult and traumatic on many levels.
According to the 2020 Stress in America report by the American Psychological Association, 46% of American adults with kids under 18 report having very high stress levels during the pandemic.1
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 stay positive or feel that they are being judged for not maintaining a sunny outlook.
Toxic positivity can often be subtle, but by learning to recognize the signs can help you better identify this type of behavior. Some signs include:
- Brushing off problems rather than facing them.
- Feeling guilty about being sad, angry, or disappointed.
- Hiding your true feelings behind feel-good quotes that seem more socially acceptable.
- Hiding or disguising how you really feel.
- Minimizing other people's feelings because they make you uncomfortable.
- Shaming other people when they do not 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 kind of behavior in yourself— there are things that you can do to develop a healthier, more supportive approach. Some ideas include:
- Manage your negative emotions, but do not deny them. Negative emotion can cause stress when unchecked, but they can also provide important information that can lead to beneficial changes in your life.
- Be realistic about what you should feel. When you are facing a stressful situation, it’s normal to feel stressed, worried, or even fearful. Don’t expect too much from yourself. Focus on self-care and taking steps that can help improve your situation.
- It’s okay to feel more than one thing. If you are facing a challenge, it’s possible to 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” social media accounts can sometimes serve as a source of inspiration but pay attention to how you feel after you view and interact with such content. If you are left with a sense of shame or guilt after seeing “uplifting” posts, it might be due to toxic positivity. In such cases, consider limiting your social media consumption.
Give yourself permission to feel 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 information and help you see things about a situation that you need to work to change.
This doesn't necessarily mean that you should act on every emotion that you feel. Sometimes it is important to sit with them and give yourself the time and space to process the situation before you take action.
So when you are going through something hard, think about 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 what you are feeling into words can help lower the intensity of those negative feelings.3
- Just stay positive!
- Good vibes only!
- It could be worse.
- Things happen for a reason.
- Failure isn't an option.
- Happiness is a choice.
- I'm listening.
- I'm here no matter what.
- That must be really hard.
- Sometimes bad things happen. How can I help?
- Failure is sometimes part of life.
- Your feelings are valid.
We All May struggle with what to say:
Toxic positivity is often subtle, and we’ve all engaged in this type of thinking at one point or another. By learning to recognize it, however, you’ll be better able to rid yourself of this type of thinking and provide (and receive) more authentic support when you are going through something that isn’t easy.
Start noticing toxic statements and strive to let yourself and others feel your emotions, both the positive and the negative.
By Kendra Cherry