Toxic and positivity don’t sound like two words that should go together, however, it’s a real thing that could be damaging your mental well-being. So, what is toxic positivity, and could you be a perpetrator or victim of it? Let’s find out…

What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity is the belief that adopting a positive and optimistic mindset will enable you to overcome any difficult situation, no matter how dreadful it is. While there are benefits to positive thinking, toxic positivity results in the denial, depreciation, and nullification of the human emotional experience.

Continuously rejecting difficult emotions in favour of positivity and forced cheerfulness is not good for your mental well-being. While having a positive outlook on life is great, we know that life itself isn’t always a positive experience. We all encounter painful and tough challenges that we need to deal with openly and honestly.

3 examples of toxic positivity to look out for

You may have already encountered some of these forms of toxic positivity:

  1. When something bad has happened to you, for example being made redundant, and your friends tell you to look on the bright side and stay positive. While they may be saying these things from a point of sympathy, this can shut down you from expressing your negative feelings further.
  2. When you lose a family member, you may hear the phrase “everything happens for a reason.” Again, this may be intended to comfort you but it’s actually a method of avoiding someone else’s pain.
  3. When you’re feeling low, you may be told that happiness is a choice. This can suggest that you are choosing to feel sad or disappointed and are at fault for not choosing happiness instead.

Statements of toxic positivity are usually well-intentioned, but they often have the opposite of their desired impact. Saying phrases like those above may enable you to avoid the awkwardness of dealing with someone else’s feelings, but they could come across like you are shaming and blaming them.

When we’re dealing with very difficult situations, what we need most is authentic support and compassion.

toxic positivity

Why is toxic positivity so harmful?

As we can see from the examples above, toxic positivity can be quite harmful to those who are experiencing difficulties. Having their problems met with “positive vibes” can make them feel dismissed, ignored or that their feelings aren’t valid.

Toxic positivity can turn into a form of shaming as it suggests that the negative feelings the person is experiencing are wrong. They may reach out for love and support but instead be left with feelings of shame and guilt that they are unable to find a way to feel positive.

Instead of being helpful, toxic positivity is actually an avoidance mechanism. It allows the “positive person” to avoid uncomfortable emotional situations when a friend needs support. It can also be something we internalise meaning that when we have painful emotions we will try to dismiss and discount them instead of confronting and working through them. None of us can grow personally and emotionally if we don’t learn to face our challenges.

Signs of toxic positivity

While they may be subtle, you should try to start recognising the signs of toxic positivity in order to avoid it. These include:

  • Hiding your true feelings and putting on a brave face
  • Feeling guilty when you’re feeling down or disappointed
  • Brushing off problems instead of facing them
  • Trying to put on a positive front and using feel-good quotes simply because it’s more socially acceptable
  • Telling yourself you need to get over painful experiences
  • Sharing positivity with others because their negative emotions are making you uncomfortable
  • Shaming those who don’t have a really positive attitude

What can you do instead?

So now you’re aware of the signs to look out for, what can you replace toxic positivity with? Here are a few suggestions for how to better manage your emotions and emotional situations:

  • You can manage your negative emotions without denying that they exist. Often being faced with challenges and negative experiences will enable you to make beneficial changes.
  • Focus on self-care and be realistic with yourself about your feelings. Are you facing a stressful situation? If so, it’s fine to be stressed and worried, but don’t let your imagination make things worse. Just think about what small steps you can make to improve.
  • Remember it’s normal and ok to feel lots of emotions at the same time. Emotions are complex.
  • Make an effort to listen to others and let them unload on you. You should remind them that you’re there for them, you understand them and what they are feeling is normal.
  • Be mindful about the accounts you follow on social media. Sometimes positive accounts can act as a source of inspiration but on your down days, they could make you feel even worse. If you notice this happening, then try taking some time off of social media.
  • Avoid toxic positivity statements like “It could be worse” and “Things happen for a reason.” Instead, you can say “I’m here for you,” “Is there anything I can do to help?” or “That must be really hard.”

what is toxic positivity

Bringing it all together

We love positivity and it’s great to feel happy and fulfilled. However, it’s important to be aware of toxic positivity and how subtle it can be. Now you’re aware and can recognise it, you should be able to get these thoughts out of your mind and be a more likeable and supportive friend.

What’s most important is that everyone can feel their emotions, good and bad, and know that they are valid.

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1 Comment

  1. I wrote about this just last week (‘Turning Toxic Positivity Into Actionable Empathy’) as it’s so pervasive and potentially so damaging. I’ve been on the receiving end of it at possibly the most difficult time (my husband’s ongoing cancer battle) where I needed actual support and all it did was encourage me to keep it all to myself and not seek help. Thanks for highlighting this — it’s much needed!

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