What is Toxic Positivity? Why is it harmful to your relationships? Why do people act this way? — and so much more. In this article I dissect this topic and help you understand why our cultural obsession with positivity is actual keeping us emotionally disconnected. It’s time that we learn to live our lives as humans, not as mannequins who wear a phony smile to cover up our humanness.
Are you one of these toxic positive people or are you just here because you’re curious about the topic? Or, maybe you’re one of them but you don’t even know it. Keep reading and I promise you’ll be a little more enlightened at the end of this article compared to where you are now.
Toxic Positivity in Action
- “Look at the glass half full, rather than half empty.”
- “You should smile more.”
- “Life is amazing. Just live in the moment. Tomorrow will be better.”
- “I can’t talk to you when you’re upset. Calm down and we can talk.”
- “It could always be worse. Imagine if you lived in Rwanda.”
- “There’s a reason for everything.”
- “Find the silver lining.”
Have you been told any of these statements? And have you said these things to someone else?
These are statements of positivity, meant to lift your spirit and help you see the good side in every situation. But do these statements really help?
If you lost your job, or you just found out your spouse has been cheating on you, or a loved one has just died, has someone uttered these words to you? Or have you said them to someone who was struggling?
Well, while it’s understandable that we might not always know what to say in unfortunate circumstances, these statements actually do more harm than good. Yes, the intention is pure. And yes, you may mean well, but always looking at the bright side of things doesn’t always apply to all situations.
When we focus too much on the positive and forget to acknowledge negative emotions and circumstances, this is what psychologists call toxic positivity.
VIDEO | TED Talk : How Toxic Positivity Leads to Suffering
Being positive helps us cope. Positivity can help lift our mood and it can improve the quality of our lives. Optimism is actually a good way to have healthy well-being. But, when it becomes too much that it invalidates emotional struggles and difficulties, too much positivity becomes a bad thing.
In the world of social media, people are forced to be positive all the time, to never show negativity, to hide their flaws and struggles, and to only highlight the good things in life.
But this is where it has become so damaging. It has become so toxic that people are now ashamed to admit that they’re struggling, embarrassed to talk about feeling sad and angry, or lonely and that they’re finding it hard to cope.
It’s about time we finally put an end to toxic positivity.
What is Toxic Positivity?
In my research of a single definition of toxic positivity, I couldn’t find one standard but found several. This is probably because toxic positivity is a relatively new term that arose out of modern society’s obsession with social media and keeping up with appearances.
However, despite this term being recent, toxic positivity has been around for many, many years, there was just no concrete way to label it, until now.
I discovered that plenty of psychologists are actually talking about it and several have even written bestselling books on the topic.
It just goes to show how prevalent toxic positivity has become and the damage it has done to people’s mental health.
Here are some of the psychologists I found to have made their definitions of what toxic positivity is —
Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, a clinical psychiatrist from Pennsylvania who specializes in anxiety disorders and self-esteem, states that toxic positivity is the assumption that despite a person’s difficult situation, they should always have a positive mindset.
Zuckerman states that at its core, it is an avoidance strategy used to push away any internal emotional discomfort. It invalidates any negative emotions we may have that spring from a painful situation.
Another explanation of toxic positivity comes from Dr. Natalie Christine Dattilo, who is a clinical psychologist and mental health speaker. She says that cultivating a positive mindset is a powerful coping mechanism but toxic positivity, on the other hand, stems from the idea that the best and only way to cope with a bad situation is to be positive and not dwell on the negative.
She further explains that toxic positivity is like eating too much ice cream. Ice cream is delicious, it makes you feel good and just enough makes a moment lighter and brighter. But too much ice cream is not only disgusting, but it can make you sick.
Positivity is good but when it’s too much, it can be toxic.
VIDEO | The Harm of Toxic Positivity in our Culture
Dr. Alison Clabaugh of Arcadia University explains that toxic positivity believes that negative emotions are bad.
Negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, anger, and sadness are seen as something dangerous and not to be given attention. However, negative emotions are actually useful and adaptive. These emotions help us avoid situations that are unpleasant or even dangerous, and have helped humans in our evolutionary history.
Negative emotions are normal and inevitable and trying to invalidate them, or by trying to hide them, is actually counterproductive to our mental health.
To have a better picture of what it is, here are some examples of toxic positivity:
Examples of Toxic Positivity
- Your friend has just been laid off from a job she’s had for 10 years. She comes to you telling you how sad she is and she doesn’t know what to do next with her life.
In an effort to make her feel good, you tell her to look on the bright side. You tell her at least you have a severance check, not everyone who loses their job gets one. You should be grateful you are given a chance to start over.
While your intention is to make your friend feel good, it invalidates her negative feelings of sadness and hopelessness. It is even shaming her for feeling sad, and that she shouldn’t feel that way because other people have it worse.
- Your spouse of 5 years has just left you and you are left all alone to take care of your two children. You confide in your sister that you are feeling devastated, lonely, and deeply hurt.
Your sister then tells you that’s a good thing because he was good for nothing, he disrespected you, and that he was a burden to you. She tells you it’s time to celebrate because you are now free and you can finally look for someone else who’s better for you.
While your sister means well, while it may be a good thing that you ended a toxic relationship, it neglects to put attention to how you’re feeling, which is sad and devastated that your marriage has ended.
Just because it may be a good thing to break up with someone who was not good to you, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t feel sad. There is a sense of loss in ending a relationship, no matter how bad it may have been. There is still a sense of grief when you lose something, especially if it involves a promise of a future, or when children are involved.
- This one is a personal experience of mine. I only realized now as I’m doing research on toxic positivity, that I had actually experienced it as a young child. I think I was about 5 or 6 years old at that time. Here is my personal story of toxic positivity.
Every weekend when I was young, my sister and I would spend time with our uncle and aunt who desperately wanted to have kids but couldn’t.
I remember we were made to take naps in the afternoon, and I remember waking up and crying. I don’t remember why, but I do remember that whenever I woke up in the afternoon and found myself alone in the room, I was scared that someone had abandoned me, so I would cry.
One time, this happened at my aunt and uncle’s place. I was crying and instead of my uncle consoling or comforting me, he told me not to cry. He told me there was no crying in his house because it’s not good to be sad.
I know he meant well. I know he only wanted me to stop crying and to stop being sad because there was no reason to, but I think it left a big impact in my life. I was scared, and instead of crying it out, I was told to stop expressing my fear and sadness.
I think it left an impact on my life and how I would never show people that I was breaking down. In school, if I was sad about a grade, I just shrugged it off and never showed my friends I was sad about it. I was always afraid that if people knew I was affected, they’d see me as weak, or that they won, or something like that.
I know people don’t intend to shut us down, I think it’s about the notion that there are good and bad emotions, and that the latter are things that we should avoid at all costs. And that really needs to change if we want to have better mental health and a society that’s more accepting.
Why Toxic Positivity is Harmful
Let’s first take a look at what positivity is. Positivity is being hopeful and being optimistic about situations in our lives. When you get sick, you don’t just lie in bed and succumb to your illness. You take medication because you know you will get better.
When you fail an exam, you study harder next time so you can ace the test. Thinking positively can make us act positively and one can have favorable results.
In fact, positivity has been linked to lower stress levels, improved immune systems, better cardiovascular health, and improved feelings of physical and emotional well-being. In fact, being positive can even give us a longer lifespan.
When we cultivate feelings of joy, inspiration, and hope, we create positive mental well-being that can help us cope with the negative effects of stressful times.
Being positive is actually really good for us and the people around us. It’s also contagious, when you spend more time with people who are optimistic, you will feel positive in your life as well.
The benefits of being positive are what people want. The physical and emotional benefits of optimism are the very roots of toxic positivity. It has just been so construed that people are encouraged and even expected to be happy and positive 100% all the time.
But while we can be dominantly positive in our life, it is impossible to be optimistic all of the time. It is against human nature to feel good and look on the bright side of things all of the time. There will always be moments when we feel sad, angry, scared, and frustrated, and that it’s okay.
Toxic positivity is harmful because it forgets this part of human life. Here is a breakdown of why toxic positivity is dangerous:
1. It Eliminates Potential Genuine Human Connections
In the given examples stated earlier, they were instances of a person reaching out to another for comfort, guidance, and understanding. When we pressure friends and family to think positively despite unfortunate events, we lose the chance to create a genuine human connection.
Telling someone or yourself that looking at the glass half full rather than half empty can dismiss, ignore, and invalidate the true emotions that you or your loved one is feeling.
It’s like you’re shutting down your loved one’s needs when what they want is comfort and support. By telling them things like “Look for the good side,” or “There’s always a reason for everything,” you forget to address true emotions that should be understood and comforted.
Toxic positivity ends the conversation that could have the potential to be a productive and fulfilling human connection between you and your friends or family.
2. It is A Form of Shaming Someone
When you or someone you know is emotionally suffering, there is a need to feel validated. That what you’re feeling is okay, that’s it’s normal to feel that way, and that you need understanding and support.
With toxic positivity, however, you are not given the chance to truly explore your emotions. It makes you feel ashamed that you have them. It makes you feel that your emotions are not unacceptable.
In the end, you fail to express yourself and show your true emotions, and you end up bottling or hiding what you really feel.
When you do show these negative emotions, you are touted as being weak, or that you failed yourself because you’re not thinking positively. You feel ashamed, and in turn, you would rather hide how you feel than show it and be humiliated for having them.
3. It Prevents Growth
Our emotions tell us to do something. When we feel angry, it’s telling us that someone or something has done us wrong, so we must do something to tell that person to stop what they’re doing that hurts us.
When we are feeling sad or hurt, it’s telling us that we should avoid a person or situation that makes us feel that way.
When we refuse to acknowledge our emotions, it prevents us from developing healthy boundaries and behaviors that are meant to make us grow.
Ultimately, toxic positivity is harmful because it is suppressing feelings that we need.
Dr. Zuckerman states that we can’t just choose the emotions we want to have. It doesn’t work that way. We will always have feelings of discomfort and pain.
In one study that was conducted in 1997, researchers discovered that suppressing feelings can cause more internal psychological stress.
The study worked with two groups of subjects. Everyone was shown a disturbing medical procedure on film while their stress responses were measured. The following were observed: their heart rates, sweat production, and pupil dilation.
One group was told to let their emotions show, while the other group was told to suppress their emotions.
The results of the study revealed that the group who were told to suppress their emotions had significantly more physical arousal. The researchers concluded that facial expression and describing how you feel helps us to regulate the stress response.
Suppressed emotions can later manifest in anxiety, depression, and even physical illnesses.
Susan David is a Harvard Medical School faculty and author of the bestselling book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life.
She did a survey of over 70,000 people and discovered that over ⅓ of everyone who participated say they judge themselves for having so-called “bad emotions: such as anger, grief, and sadness. This number of respondents also actively push aside their feelings.
David then further explains that research has shown that radical acceptance of all our emotions, even the “bad emotions,” is the cornerstone of resilience and authentic happiness.
In today’s world, people are forced to deny the pain, bottle up emotions, and bury them to the point that people explode eventually.
VIDEO | “Stop Being So Positive” / Kati Morton
Is There Such A Thing As Good & Bad Emotions?
Emotions are labeled as either good or bad. Good emotions are joy, happiness, satisfaction, and amusement, and bad emotions are sadness, fear, anger, disgust, shame, or pride.
We are often told that bad emotions are negative, that they shouldn’t be shown, and that they shouldn’t be given any attention.
But did you know that emotions are neither good nor bad? According to Susan David, emotions are simply data. Emotions are simply information and not directives. And because of this, emotions should be felt and expressed freely in a healthy and productive manner.
Susan David says that we are not our emotions. They are simply data that we can choose to react or respond to, and that our emotions don’t need to control us.
But what are these emotions? In 1972, psychologist Paul Ekman suggested that there are 6 basic emotions that are universal, and these are:
In 1999, he expanded his list and included the following emotions:
Those that are labeled as negative emotions are avoided at all times by people because they are painful and uncomfortable. Of course, it’s human nature to avoid something that brings pain, and it’s only natural to escape feelings that do so.
But as mentioned earlier, the healthier approach would be to manage them without denying you experience them. All emotions exist for a reason and they can be quite useful.
Remember that emotions are data or information that your body responds to from our environment. We need to listen to all of our emotions, and not just the good ones to be able to thrive and find authentic happiness.
Toxic Positivity and the Stigma of Mental Health
Talking about mental health is becoming more popular today and the notion of taking care of yourself has never been given more attention than now. However, stigma against mental health still does exist, and this prejudice against people suffering from some form of mental crisis are still prevalent.
Did you know that the World Health Organization has listed depression as the number one cause of disability in the world? That’s more than heart disease and cancer. Depression is so damaging that it has preceded actual physical illness in terms of impairment that prevents people from doing certain activities and interacting with the world around them.
Unfortunately, because of the stigma, discrimination, and prejudice against mental illness, more than half of the people who suffer from it don’t receive the help they need.
Stigma can come from a lack of understanding, or fear about what mental illness really is, as well as inaccurate representations in social media, TV, and even movies about it.
Take for example the movie Joker, released in 2019, which shows the lead character as having a mental illness who later becomes extremely violent. A study was done in April 2020 that revealed viewing the film was associated with higher levels of prejudice against people with mental illness.
Misrepresentations, exaggerations, and fear of psychological issues can have harmful effects on people who are mentally and emotionally suffering. A recent review of research on stigma against mental illness reveals that self-stigma leads to harmful effects.
Some of these effects include lower self-esteem, increased psychiatric symptoms, reduced hope, struggles with social relationships, problems at work, and lastly, reduced likelihood of getting help.
When toxic positivity is encouraged or has become the norm, people who are suffering from mental and emotional distress are finding it hard to seek support, find the help that they need, and recover.
When people are expected to be positive despite difficult situations, people feel like a failure, that everything that happens to them is their fault. Sometimes, there are events in life that are beyond our control and we can’t always respond to these events with a smile or an optimistic attitude.
There are always going to be instances and events that will bring negative emotions and when you can no longer cope on your own, the norm should be to seek help. It should be okay not to be okay, but the culture of toxic positivity has made it extremely difficult in today’s time and age.
So what can you do?
How to Use Healthy Positivity Versus Toxic Positivity
We’ve covered what toxic positivity is and why it’s harmful. So now what do we do? Yes, too much positivity is damaging, so do we cancel positivity altogether? The answer is no. Positivity still prevails but it must be healthy positivity and not toxic positivity.
What is health positivity and how can we apply it in our lives, as well as in helping others?
Healthy positivity is a positivity that leaves space for negative emotions. It is not about burying uncomfortable emotions to the point that you don’t address them. It is about being positive in life, looking at the glass half full, but also taking the time to acknowledge that you’re sad, you are angry, or you’re frustrated.
Earlier, I mentioned the film, Joker, and how it negatively affects how people view those who are suffering from mental illness. Well, not all movie representations are wrong or damaging to mental health. One move actually got it right. And this movie is Pixar’s Inside Out.
VIDEO | Watch Trailer for Inside Out (Watch on Amazon Prime)
The movie perfectly explains why we need all our emotions to live an authentic life. The film perfectly represents human emotions and how they all work together. The movie depicts sadness not as a problem to be overcome but as an essential part of the human experience.
The protagonist of the movie is 11-year-old Riley. She experiences stress and maybe depression when she moves away from her childhood home. Her inner Joy attempted to sideline sadness and tried to maintain a false sunny disposition, which failed.
It is only when Joy accepted the necessity of sadness in Riley’s life that they were able to preserve Riley’s emotional balance.
As I mentioned earlier, emotions are neither good nor bad, but they are merely information that guides us to act. It is up to us to respond to our emotions in the best way we can, and that is where the good or bad label occurs.
We may feel sad, but that doesn’t mean we wallow it in and let it ruin our lives. We may feel happy, but that doesn’t mean we neglect feelings of anger and frustration because we just want to feel happy all the time.
We need all of our emotions, no matter how good they feel or how painful they may be.
Healthy positivity is engaging in a positive perspective in life that can give us improved self-esteem and a better outlook in life. Healthy positivity is transformative and never damaging.
What To Do When You Find Yourself Practicing Toxic Positivity
Now you might be wondering, so what do I say to my friend who just lost her job? What do I say to myself when I feel the blues? Do I just wallow in my misery? Of course not. There are things you can tell yourself and loved ones that will make them feel seen and acknowledged without forcing them to “think positive.”
1/ Learn Healthier Statements of Empathy
Here are some statements you can say instead:
Rather than saying “You’re better off without him,” to someone who is going through heartache, you can say, “I know it must hurt, you cared about the person, and I understand why you may feel sad. I am here to listen.”
Rather than saying, “Everything happens for a reason,” to someone whose dad just died, you can say, “I can’t imagine what you must be feeling, but if you want to talk, I am here.”
Rather than saying, “It could be worse,” to someone who is just doing her job, you can say, “I know how hard that can be, what can I do to help?”
It is hard to find the words to comfort and encourage someone who is suffering emotionally or mentally but by telling them you acknowledge how they feel and that you are there for them when they need you, you are giving attention to their painful emotions while also giving them emotional support.
2/ Manage Negative Emotions
Sometimes you may feel like your negative emotions are taking control of your life. So you either practice toxic positivity to avoid these painful feelings, or you completely succumb to these uncomfortable emotions.
►To avoid toxic positivity, you can learn how to manage your emotions. Susan David suggests four tips to help manage emotions:
1/ Avoid Bottling and Brooding
Bottling is repressing any feelings of anger, sadness, or contempt. It is the complete avoidance of having to express and acknowledge that you are having these emotions.
Brooding is when you let your emotions take complete control over you. You let your sadness or anger take complete control of your time, your thoughts, and how you engage in your activities, as well as interact with other people.
2/ Be Kind To Yourself
David suggests gentle acceptance of who you are and all the emotions you are feeling. Don’t fall prey to the expectations that you must be happy or confident all of the time. You need to accept that yes, there are times when you’re sad, and yes, there are times when you’re angry, and that’s perfectly okay.
3/ Learn How to Identify and Label Your Emotions
David says that a lot of people say they feel “stressed.” They don’t really know what the emotion is and why they feel that way. So instead of saying you’re stressed, you can learn to identify what you really feel and label it as such.
You can say you’re sad and exhausted because you’re working too much. Or you can say you’re angry because your partner is not treating you the way you deserve.
By identifying and labeling your emotions, you can understand where the emotions come from and what you can do to change them.
For example, when working too much, you feel sad and tired. So what do you do? Maybe you can take a break or ask your boss for a day off or maybe you can take several breaks during the day.
By identifying and labeling your emotions, you are better able to pinpoint the cause of your stress, and do something about it.
4/ Accept that Emotions Are Only a Part of You
Stop saying, “I am sad.” Or “I am angry.” You are not your emotions and your emotions are not you. Create a psychological space between you and your emotions so feeling sad does not become you.
You must realize that your emotions are only a part of you and that there are other things in your life that are also wonderful and great.
By creating this space between you and your emotions, you are better able to control them. You can acknowledge them but accept that they’re not your entire life. You can be sad and happy at the same time. Angry and good at the same time.
VIDEO | Dark Side of Being Positive ALL THE TIME
Be Wary of Social Media
Social media gives off the impression that everybody has got their affairs in order, that everything is doing great in their life. Of course, people only show the good things in life, and rarely post about their struggles and emotional despairs.
Social media gives off the impression that everyone is handling hard times better than you and this can foster a sense of loneliness and shame on your part. You begin to ask yourself, why is my life falling apart but everyone else is happy?
Dr. Natalie Hendry, of the RMIT University School of Media and Communications, who is a Vice Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow, says that social media is a breeding ground for toxic positivity. She says that this damaging culture is easy to spot on social media especially in how people respond to posts.
When someone complains about their life or shares their struggles, you will often see comments saying the person doesn’t have the right to complain because she’s a millionaire or that there’s no need to be sad when you’re that beautiful, and comments that are simply invalidating.
Take everything you see on social media with a grain of salt and don’t use it as a standard for your own life.
If you’re unsure whether or not you’re practicing toxic positivity in your life, here are some signs that you are:
Signs That Your Positivity Has Turned Toxic :
- You avoid or hide uncomfortable feelings. You either drink it away, use recreational drugs, party with friends, or constantly eat and shop to avoid sitting down with your emotions.
- You feel shame when you feel uncomfortable emotions.
- You dismiss feelings that are not positive. If you’re sad, you’d rather show people that you’re smiling or that nothing’s wrong. You create a false positive persona even when you’re drowning in misery inside.
- When someone confides in you that they’re emotionally struggling, you say things like, “That’s not a problem, you’re just imagining it. Be happy.” Or, “Some people have it worse, consider yourself lucky.” Or, “You can’t be sad when you have a successful marriage, a good-paying job, and kids that love you. Snap out of it, be grateful instead.”
When you find yourself acting these behaviors out, it’s time you stop yourself and realize you’re doing more harm than good by pushing too much positivity in yourself and in others.
Final Thoughts on Toxic Positivity
Being positive or optimistic is good for your mental and physical well-being. Studies have shown that those who have a positive mindset have less stress levels and live longer.
But when positivity becomes too much, it can be toxic. When society’s standards are set so high that struggles, flaws, failures, and negative emotions are hidden while a fake smile and success are celebrated on social media and society in general, we fail to address our basic human experiences.
These experiences are grief, sadness, loneliness, and even our shortcomings. When all we see are happy people, traveling, having amazing relationships, and successes, we tend to feel like failures when we struggle silently. This shouldn’t be the norm. The norm should be to express both positive and negative emotions and to truly experience what it means to be human.
Toxic positivity should never be the norm. Instead, healthy positivity should be more prevalent, where you acknowledge all your emotions, both positive and negative, and realize that all of these are needed by us to live an authentic life.
References : Toxic Positivity
- What Is Toxic Positivity? (Very Well Mind)
- ‘Toxic Positivity’ Is Real — and It’s a Big Problem During the Pandemic / Healthline
- Hiding feelings: the acute effects of inhibiting negative and positive emotion / PubMed
- Putting Feelings Into Words / UCLA (PDF)
- Time to Ditch ‘Toxic Positivity,’ Experts Say: ‘It’s Okay Not To be Okay’ / Association for Psychological Science
- Positive Psychology VS Toxic Positivity / CTO Academy
- Positive Psychology VS Toxic Positivity : How to distinguish between helpful and unhelpful positivity / Thrive Global
- Toxic Positivity: The Dark Side of Positive Vibes / The Psychology Group
- Toxic Positivity: A Cultural History From Voltaire To Pixar / A Magazine
- Healthy Positivity vs. Toxic Positivity: The Important Difference / The Pouting Room
- Emotions and Types of Emotional Responses / Very Well Mind
- How Negative Emotions Affect Us / Very Well Mind
- The Difference Between Genuine Optimism and Toxic Positivity (And Why It Matters) / The Health Sessions
- Toxic positivity on social media and how to avoid it / Every Day
- The stigma of mental disorders : A millennia‐long history of social exclusion and prejudices / NCBI