What Is Toxic Positivity

Toxic Positivity

“You just have to be positive!” 

“Everything happens for a reason!”

“Think happy thoughts!”

How many times has someone told you something along these lines when you were struggling? No matter how well-meaning they may be, these sentiments can do a lot more harm than good. In fact, there’s even a term for it – it’s called toxic positivity, and it can wreak havoc on your mental health. Here’s a closer look at what it entails and how to deal with toxic positivity.

What Is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity is the idea that no matter how hard a situation is, you need to maintain a positive mindset. While this type of optimism might sound good in theory and positive thinking does have benefits, what makes this type of extreme positivity so toxic is the fact that it rejects difficult and very real emotions in favor of false displays of cheerfulness.

It’s important to note that this assumption doesn’t always come from others around you – it could be you telling yourself that you should only have a positive mindset, and it’s just as counterproductive.

Forms of Toxic Positivity

Here is a look at some of the ways in which toxic positivity can manifest itself.

  • When you experience a loss, a friend tells you to be thankful for what you do have.
  • When you’re frustrated by something that happened at work, a family member chastises you for expressing that frustration rather than taking the time to listen to why it was so upsetting for you.
  • When you are feeling sad or lonely, you tell yourself you should not dwell on those feelings.
  • Your coworker who knows you are having relationship problems sends you memes every day with sentiments like “good vibes only!”

Toxic Positivity Signs

Although toxic positivity may be subtle, it is useful to be able to recognize this behavior so you can see it for what it is. Here are some of the signs of toxic positivity influencing your feelings and behavior:

  • You feel guilty about being disappointed, angry, or sad
  • You hide how you truly feel
  • You brush off your problems instead of facing them
  • You shame others when they are not being positive
  • You minimize the feelings of other people because they make you feel uncomfortable
  • You try to appear stoic or “get over” any painful emotions you are experiencing
  • You hide your real feelings behind uplifting quotes that you feel are more socially acceptable

Why Is Toxic Positivity So Harmful?

When positivity covers up or suppresses the human experience, it can be toxic. Denying or disallowing the existence of our feelings can lead to repressed emotions. Feeling angry, jealous, sad, resentful, lonely, and other so-called “negative emotions” are all part of the human experience and need to be accepted and processed. Here are some of the ways that the influence of toxic positivity can harm us emotionally.

Shame

Forcing a positive outlook on a person in a painful situation encourages them to keep quiet about their struggles. No one wants to come across as being a downer, so it can be tempting to just pretend like everything is going well. When you judge yourself for feeling things like jealousy or sadness, it leads to secondary emotions like shame that can destroy your spirit. A person who is suffering needs to know that their feelings are valid, whatever they happen to be.

Guilt

Toxic positivity makes people who cannot find a way to be positive in the face of tragedy feel as though they must be doing something wrong. Oftentimes, well-meaning friends and family members can leave people feeling guilty about their own emotions, which is not productive.

In fact, studies show that people who habitually accept their emotions are more likely to have better psychological health, and this is true across all genders, ethnicities, and socioeconomic statuses. Moreover, accepting these experiences resulted in fewer negative emotions when people were confronted with daily stressors.

Isolation

When a person denies the truth of their feelings, they start to live inauthentically both with themselves and with the world around them. Once you lose that connection with yourself, you will likely struggle to connect with others and relate to them.

When you feel like someone will only allow positive feelings around them, it can be hard to express your true emotions with them. You will feel like you cannot be yourself around them, which can be incredibly isolating.

Suppressed Emotions

Studies show that denying your feelings or hiding them can cause severe stress. For example, one study found that when you are asked not to think about a particular topic, you are actually even more likely to think about it. A different study found that suppressing your feelings results in even more psychological stress.

If you suppress emotions, it can lead to increased depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. It can disrupt your sleep, prolong your grief, make you more prone to substance abuse, and even cause post-traumatic stress disorder.

How To Avoid Toxic Positivity

If you believe you have been affected by toxic positivity or you might be behaving this way toward others, here are some ways to develop a more supportive approach.

Be realistic about how you should feel

When you are dealing with something stressful or upsetting, keep in mind that it is perfectly normal to be worried, afraid, stressed, angry, sad, or whatever you are feeling. Do not expect too much from yourself, and try to practice good self-care and take steps to improve the situation.

Do not deny your feelings

Although it is true that negative emotions can lead to stress when left unchecked, they also give us useful information that can help us make beneficial changes in our lives. Do not deny your negative emotions; instead, find ways to manage them. One study from UCLA found that putting your feelings into words can reduce the intensity of emotions like pain, trauma, sadness and anger. Therapy can help with this too.

H3: Pay attention to how people make you feel

Note how different situations and people in your life make you feel so you can make adjustments where needed and set healthy boundaries. If, for example, someone always makes you feel guilty for feeling the way you do, limit your conversations with that persona. If that positive social media account you followed for inspiration is actually leaving you feeling shame, stop following it. Allow yourself to feel how you are feeling and tell yourself your feelings are valid and important.

Seek professional help

While allowing yourself to feel negative emotions can be informative and spur positive changes, that does not necessarily mean that it is productive to act on every emotion you feel. Sometimes you need to give yourself some space and time to process a situation before taking any action.

Therapy can help you give voice to your emotions in a productive way, process your feelings, and adopt a healthier mindset. Online therapy can be particularly valuable because its convenience and affordability makes it more accessible and comfortable.

Listen and validate the feelings of others

Whether you are on the receiving end of toxic positivity or not, you should also take steps to ensure that you are not treating others this way. Do not shame other people for their emotions. Understand that everyone is entitled to their own feelings, even if they are different from how you feel.

Lean toward offering support rather than unsolicited advice. Instead of making toxic statements like “Stay positive”, ask the person to describe what they are feeling and use accepting statements. Tell them you are listening and ask if there is anything you can do to help or support them. Let people you care about know that you are there for them through the good and the bad.

The Bottom Line

It is perfectly acceptable to not feel okay all the time. Humans cannot simply choose to only experience the emotions we want to have. It is important to learn how to accept all the genuine feelings that you experience and let them pass, and we should also support others and validate their feelings.

Kate Skurat

Kate Skurat

Licensed Mental Health | Washington, United States

Kate has a B.S. in Psychology and M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University and has worked in healthcare since 2017. She primarily treated depression, anxiety, eating disorders, trauma, and grief, as well as identity, relationship and adjustment issues. Her clinical experience has focused on individual and group counseling, emergency counseling and outreach. Read more