Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. While there are benefits to being optimistic and engaging in positive thinking, toxic positivity rejects all difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful, and often falsely-positive façade. This attitude doesn’t just stress the importance of optimism—it also minimizes and even denies any trace of human emotions not strictly happy or positive.
The Psychology Behind Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity takes positive thinking to an overgeneralized extreme. This attitude denies people the authentic support they need to cope with what they are facing. It often manifests as a “good vibes only” approach to life, discarding any seemingly negative emotions. This simplistic solution to complex human emotions can lead to struggles in emotional honesty and understanding.
Examples of Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity can take a wide variety of forms. Some examples you may have encountered in your own life include:
- When something bad happens, such as losing your job, people may say to “just stay positive” or “look on the bright side.” While such comments are often meant to be sympathetic, they can shut down anything the other person might want to say about what they are experiencing.
- After experiencing some type of loss, people might say that “everything happens for a reason.” While people will make such statements because they believe they are comforting, this is also a way of avoiding the other person’s pain.
- Upon expressing disappointment or sadness, someone may respond that “happiness is a choice.” This suggests that if someone is feeling negative emotions, it’s their own fault for not “choosing” to be happy.
The Difference Between Toxic Positivity and Genuine Positivity
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. Genuine positivity involves acknowledging all emotions, both positive and negative, without suppressing or denying them. It validates the person’s feelings and provides them with the support they need to cope with their situation.
Why is Toxic Positivity Harmful?
Too much positivity is toxic because it can harm people who are going through difficult times. Rather than being able to share genuine human emotions and gain unconditional support, people who are faced with toxic positivity find their feelings dismissed, ignored, or outright invalidated. It’s shaming: Receiving toxic positivity can lead to feelings of shame. It tells people that the emotions they are feeling are unacceptable. When someone is suffering, they need to know that their emotions are valid and that they can find relief and love in their friends and family.
Signs of Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity can often be subtle. Learning to recognize the signs can help you better identify this type of behavior. Signs that you might be toxically positive include:
- Brushing off problems rather than facing them
- Hiding your true feelings behind feel-good quotes that seem socially acceptable
- Minimizing other people’s feelings because they make you uncomfortable
- Shaming other people when they don’t have a positive attitude
The Impact of Toxic Positivity on Mental Health
Toxic positivity can lead to suppressing emotions, feeling shame, hiding one’s authentic self, isolation from others, passivity, and even physical health problems. It sends a message that if you aren’t finding a way to feel positive—even in the face of tragedy—you are doing something wrong. This denies us the ability to face challenging feelings that can ultimately lead to growth and deeper insight.
Coping With Toxic Positivity
If someone you know has a tendency to respond to your negative feelings with statements that aren’t supportive or emotionally validating, some ways you can respond totoxic positivity include:
- Be realistic about what you feel. When facing a difficult situation, it’s normal to feel stressed, worried, or even fearful. Don’t expect too much from yourself. Practice self-care and work on taking steps that can help improve your situation.
- Don’t be afraid to challenge the person being toxically positive. While challenging this type of response can be uncomfortable, confronting the person’s approach provides them the opportunity to grow. This can be especially helpful if facing toxic positivity at work, helping leaders evaluate the impact of their statements and actions.
- Know that 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, at the same time, hopeful that you will succeed. Your emotions can be as complex as the situation itself.
- Look for meaning behind what you’re going through. “Tragic optimism,” or searching for the meaning behind difficult situations, is the opposite of toxic positivity and, according to some, is considered the antidote to this type of response.
- 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.
- Put your feelings into words. When going through something hard, think about ways to give voice to your emotions in a way that is productive. Write in a journal or talk to a friend. Research suggests that just putting what you are feeling into words can help lower the intensity of negative feelings.
The Role of Society and Culture in Promoting Toxic Positivity
Societal and cultural factors often encourage toxic positivity. The pressure to always be positive or pursue happiness regardless of circumstances can lead to denying and minimizing negative emotions, which can harm mental health. It’s important to challenge these societal norms and promote a cultural shift towards emotional honesty and acceptance.
How do you identify toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity can often be subtle. Learning to recognize the signs can help you better identify this type of behavior. Signs that you might be toxically positive include brushing off problems rather than facing them, hiding your true feelings behind feel-good quotes that seem socially acceptable, minimizing other people’s feelings because they make you uncomfortable, and shaming other people when they don’t have a positive attitude.
Is toxic positivity gaslighting?
Some even consider toxic positivity a form of gaslighting. This is because it creates a false narrative of reality, often causing you to question what you think and feel. In some cases, toxic positivity may even be abusive. An abusive person might use it to devalue, dismiss, and minimize another person’s emotions and experiences. They might even use it as a way to downplay the seriousness of their own abusive actions.
What is the cause of toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity often comes from a place of discomfort with negative emotions. People may resort to toxic positivity as a way to avoid dealing with difficult emotions, both in themselves and others. It can also be a result of societal and cultural pressures to always appear happy and positive.
What is toxic vs real positivity?
Toxic positivity involves dismissing or avoiding negative emotions in favor of maintaining a positive facade. Real positivity, on the other hand, involves acknowledging all emotions, both positive and negative, and dealing with them in a healthy and constructive way. Real positivity validates all emotions and provides support to cope with difficult situations.
How can I avoid toxic positivity?
To avoid toxic positivity, it’s important to allow yourself and others to express a full range of emotions. Instead of dismissing negative feelings, try to validate and understand them. Practice empathy and active listening when someone shares their struggles with you.
Can toxic positivity lead to mental health issues?
Yes, toxic positivity can lead to mental health issues. When negative emotions are consistently dismissed or invalidated, it can lead to increased feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress. It can also lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, as individuals may feel they cannot express their true feelings.
How can I respond to toxic positivity?
If you’re faced with toxic positivity, it’s okay to express your feelings and assert your need for genuine support. You can also choose to distance yourself from individuals or environments that consistently exhibit toxic positivity.
Can toxic positivity exist in the workplace?
Yes, toxic positivity can exist in the workplace. This can manifest as a culture that discourages expression of personal or professional struggles and promotes a “keep positive” mentality at all times. This can lead to burnout and decreased job satisfaction.
How does toxic positivity affect relationships?
Toxic positivity can harm relationships by creating a dynamic where genuine feelings and struggles are not acknowledged or validated. This can lead to a lack of emotional intimacy and understanding, as individuals may feel they cannot express their true feelings.
Can you give an example of a statement that is toxically positive?
An example of a toxically positive statement could be “Just think positive, things could be worse.” This statement dismisses valid feelings of distress or sadness and instead imposes a need for positivity, regardless of the situation.
How can I promote genuine positivity?
Genuine positivity can be promoted by acknowledging all emotions, both positive and negative, and dealing with them in a healthy and constructive way. This involves validating feelings, practicing empathy, and providing support to cope with difficult situations.
Toxic positivity is a pervasive issue that can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and isolation. It’s important to recognize the signs of toxic positivity and take steps to address it. This involves acknowledging and validating all emotions, both positive and negative, and providing genuine support to those going through difficult times. By doing so, we can promote a healthier, more emotionally honest society.