Everything You Need to Know About Toxic Positivity

Toxic positivity refers to the belief that people should have a positive mindset no matter how complex or dire a situation is. While optimism and positive thinking can be beneficial, toxic positivity throwaways all difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful or often falsely-positive façade. A positive outlook on life can improve your mental well-being, though life is not always positive. We all experience painful and difficult emotions throughout life. Those unpleasant emotions must be dealt with openly and honestly to achieve acceptance and improved psychological health. Toxic positivity exaggerates positive thinking. It doesn't only stress the importance of optimism but decreases and sometimes rejects any trace of human emotions not strictly positive or happy. In addition, toxic positivity is having ‘good vibes only’ about life and neglecting all other negative emotions. It rejects people the authentic support they require to cope with what they’re facing.

Examples of Toxic Positivity

Toxic positivity hinges on failing to acknowledge someone's negative emotions. A few examples of toxic positivity include the following:
  • When you experience a setback like losing your job, people may tell you to "just stay positive" or "look on the bright side." While such words offer sympathy, they can hide anything the other person wants to say about their feelings.
  • After a loss, people might say that "everything happens for a reason." Though this statement is meant to console, it can also be a way to avoid acknowledging someone’s pain.
  • When you express disappointment or sadness, someone may say, "happiness is a choice." It implies that negative emotions result from failing to "choose" to be happy.

Why is Toxic Positivity Harmful?

Too much positivity can become toxic and harmful to people struggling through difficult times. Instead of receiving genuine human emotions and unconditional support, people with toxic positivity often find their feelings dismissed, invalidated, or ignored. Some harmful effects of toxic positivity include:

Demeaning a Loss

Grief and sadness are normal in the face of loss. People who constantly hear messages to be happy or move on might feel that others are not concerned about their loss. For example, a parent who has lost a child might think their child was unimportant to others, compounding their grief.

Causes Shame

Toxic positivity can lead to shame, making people feel that their emotions are unacceptable. When a person is suffering, they need to know that their emotions are valid and they can seek relief and love from their loved ones.

Causes Guilt

Toxic positivity can cause feelings of guilt. It carries a message that if you’re feeling positive even in a tragic situation, you’re doing some inappropriate.

Avoids Human Emotions

Toxic positivity is an avoidance mechanism. When people indulge in this behavior, it enables them to avoid the emotional situation that makes them uneasy. Sometimes we ignore and deny difficult emotions when we feel them.

Prevents Growth

Toxic positivity helps us to avoid feeling things that may cause pain. However, it hinders our ability to confront difficult feelings that can lead to growth and deeper insights.

Communication Issues

Every relationship has different challenges. Toxic positivity only stimulates people to overlook these challenges and concentrate on the positive side. This strategy can ruin communication and the ability to solve relationship issues.

Isolation and Stigma

People who feel pressure to smile in adversity are less likely to get help. They may feel isolated or guilty about the feelings that prevent them from seeking support. According to the American Psychiatric Association, stigma can deter a person from seeking mental health treatment. The mantra “positive vibes only” can be challenging during distress times. Being told they must focus on the bright side can seem cruel when dealing with financial issues, illness, job loss, or losing a loved one. Toxic positivity can be perceived as a form of gaslighting, as it creates a false narrative of reality and causes you to question your thoughts and feelings. In some circumstances, toxic positivity can even be abusive. An abuser might adopt it to dismiss and devalue the victim's emotions and experiences.

Signs of Toxic Positivity 

Toxic positivity can be subtle and recognized by different signs. Signs that might be toxically positive include:
  • Avoiding problems and instead facing them
  • Hiding your feelings behind feel-good quotes that are socially acceptable
  • Minimalizing the feelings of others because they make you uncomfortable
  • Criticizing and shaming others for not maintaining a positive attitude.

Ways to Avoid Toxic Positivity

When you identify toxic positive behavior in yourself, there are a few things that you can do to develop a healthier, supportive approach. Some ways are:
  • Adopt the attitude that it's okay not to be okay rather than having a viewpoint that it's wrong to have negative feelings. Acknowledge that it's unrealistic to be happy all the time. Always remind yourself that it's normal for someone not to feel okay sometimes.
  • Manage your negative feelings, but don't postpone them. Negative feelings can lead to stress when left unchecked. These can also offer imperative information that can lead to beneficial changes in your life.
  • Try to focus on listening to others and showing support. When someone shares a difficult emotion, don’t shut them down with toxic positivity. Tell them what they feel is important, and you listen to them.

Ways to Respond to Toxic Positivity

If someone tends to respond to your negative feelings that aren't emotionally validating or supportive, different methods to handle toxic positivity are:
  • Acknowledge your feelings. Feeling stressed, worried, or fearful is normal in a problematic situation. You should not place unrealistic expectations on yourself. Practice self-care and follow different steps to improve the situation.
  • Don’t be afraid to challenge the person being toxically positive. Although it can be uncomfortable, challenging this behavior gives the person a chance to grow. It is helpful if someone faces toxic positivity at work, as it allows leaders to assess the effects of their words and actions.
  • It's okay to feel multiple emotions at once. When someone faces any challenging situation, they might be nervous about the future, and at the same time, they might be hopeful about succeeding. So, your emotions can be as complex as the situation itself.
  • Focus on how you feel. Following positive social media accounts can sometimes inspire you but notice how you feel after interacting with such content. If you're ashamed or guilty after seeing uplifting posts, it might be because of toxic positivity. You can avoid it by limiting social media use.
  • Put your feelings into words. When you're suffering from a tough time, look for different ways to give voice to your emotions in a productive way. You can talk to a friend or write a journal. When you start putting your feelings into words, it can help reduce the intensity of negative feelings.

When Does Positivity Turn Toxic?

It can sometimes be challenging to differentiate positivity and toxic positivity. For instance, if someone says, “Look on the bright side,” they don't mean to ignore your distress. But toxic positivity may be at play if someone always denies your negative emotions or tells you to act disingenuously. Positivity is also unhelpful in specific situations. Research recommends that looking for silver linings is advantageous in uncontrollable contexts, such as being laid off, but harmful in situations they can control. Using positivity when one’s identity is at risk, such as facing racial oppression, also leads to lower well-being.

Final Words

Toxic positivity inspires people to ignore challenging emotions, potentially intensifying the power of these feelings. Although it offers some advantages, no one can always think positively. Moreover, forcing someone to express only positive emotions can suppress their communication ability and make them feel bad for having negative thoughts.