What is toxic positivity?
It is a “pressure to stay upbeat no matter how dire one’s circumstance is”, which may prevent emotional coping by feeling otherwise natural emotions. Toxic positivity happens when people believe that negative thoughts about anything should be avoided. Even in response to events which normally would evoke sadness, such as loss or hardships, positivity is encouraged as a means to cope, but tends to overlook and dismiss true expression.
In one sense, toxic positivity is a construct in psychology about how to handle human emotions, toxic positivity is criticized for its requirement to feel positive all the time, even when reality is negative. The discipline of positive psychology emerged in response to the general tendency in the field of psychology to focus on the negative—things like treating depression, anxiety, etc… But with positive psychology, the pendulum may have swung too far. Instead of focusing entirely on decreasing negative emotions and problems, positive psychology focuses entirely on increasing positive emotions and outcomes.
From “think positive” to “no bad days,” the internet is full of uplifting quotes and phrases that are meant to inspire positivity in a helpful way.
Historically and especially in the nineteenth century, boom-and-bust cycles led not only to reverence for successful businessmen, but also to attributing lack of success not to external circumstance but to a failure of character. Cain documents this perceived failure of character as being reflected in the evolving definition of the term “loser”. The result is a culture with a “positivity mandate”—an imperative to act “unfailingly cheerful and positive…”
Toxic positivity is shallow. It’s a false reassurance, like someone saying “everything happens for a reason” after your grandmother dies or “everything will work out” after you lose your job and apartment and are forced to relocate.
People with a constant requirement for positive experiences may be inadvertently stigmatizing their own negative emotions, such as depression, or suppressing natural emotional responses, such as sadness, regret, or stress. Accepting negative emotions can make a person happier and healthier overall.
Uncontrollable and controllable situations are important determinants of positivity. If the situation is controllable, artificially positive thinking can thwart a person’s ability to fix the negative situation. Another determinant is the person’s attitude toward happiness which may prevent an optimal response to the inevitable negative experiences that life brings. Positivity becomes toxic with the inability to examine and fix past mistakes. To gloss over inevitable mistakes with exaggerated confidence is unhelpful because it prevents learning from mistakes.
Here’s what you need to know about the difference between true positivity and toxic positivity, how to avoid perpetuating the latter and what to say to someone who insists on doing so.
First, it’s helpful to understand what toxic positivity is, exactly — because, despite what cynics may say, not all positivity is bad.
According to Tabitha Kirkland, a psychologist and associate teaching professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Psychology, it’s important to recognize that positivity is two different but related things: Our internal emotions and the emotions we project to others.
“Toxic positivity is a way of responding to your own or someone else’s suffering that comes across as a lack of empathy. It dismisses emotions instead of affirming them and could come from a place of discomfort,” she explains.
Toxic positivity usually isn’t intended to cause harm. Often, it happens in situations when we want to help but don’t know what to say, for example, if a friend reveals they received a difficult diagnosis.
How toxic positivity affects your relationships
Not many of us know how to talk about sad or uncomfortable topics, and in our attempts, we may mess up.
While messing up sometimes is normal and human, it’s important to pay attention to how you respond to someone’s attempts to confide in you.
“With toxic positivity, we want to make someone feel better, but it doesn’t typically have the desired effect; it shuts the other person up,” says Kirkland.
For example, and going back to the difficult diagnosis scenario, maybe your friend is telling you how scared and uncertain they are about the future. This is hard to hear, so instead of listening, you try to reassure them that everything will be OK.
Shutting someone down — whether intentional or not — when they’re trying to share something difficult with you creates a disconnect. You can’t bond with someone if you’re unwilling to sit in their grief, sadness or anger with them.
It can also misrepresent you to others, making you seem hard to connect with or even a bit fake.
If you have children, toxic positivity can impact your relationship with them, too.
“With children, our impulse may be to tell them, ‘You’re OK’ or ‘It’s not a big deal’ or ‘Stop crying, everything is fine.’ This teaches them that their negative feelings aren’t OK and can be influential on how they develop and process their concepts about emotion, and how they learn to express or not express their own emotions,” Kirkland explains.
Kirkland also notes that emotion is gendered: Boys aren’t encouraged to express emotions except those that reflect power, such as anger, whereas girls are encouraged to express their emotions but only ones that are seen as less powerful, such as agreeableness.
These gendered differences in emotion socialization can lead men to suppress their emotions and can lead women to feel pressured to show positive feelings that may be inauthentic.
Signs of Toxic Positivity
Below are some common expressions and experiences of toxic positivity to help you recognize how it shows up in everyday life.
- Hiding/Masking your true feelings
- Trying to “just get on with it” by stuffing/dismissing an emotion(s)
- Feeling guilty for feeling what you feel
- Minimizing other people’s experiences with “feel good” quotes or statements
- Trying to give someone perspective (e.g., “it could be worse”) instead of validating their emotional experience
- Shaming or chastising others for expressing frustration or anything other than positivity
- Brushing off things that are bothering you with an “It is what it is”
How toxic positivity affects you
Sometimes, forcing positivity may not be in response to someone else’s misfortune but our own.
It’s normal and understandable to not want to deal with your negative emotions sometimes. But if you’re regularly forcing a positive outlook on yourself when your feelings are the opposite, it can take a toll on your mental health.
“Some research suggests that people who avoid their own negative emotions just feel worse later on,” Kirkland says.
Basically, if you keep ghosting your own emotions, they’ll keep coming back to haunt you until you finally deal with them.
To force a positive outlook on pain is to encourage a person to keep silent about their struggles.
Most of us don’t want to be seen as a drag or “bad,” so when the choice is between A) be brave and honest or B) pretend like everything is going great, we might be tempted to adopt the latter.
Author and researcher Brené Brown teaches in several of her books, presentations, and interviews that the energy source of shame is silence, secrecy, and judgment. In other words, where there is hiding, secrets, and denial, shame is usually in the driver’s seat.
Shame is crippling to the human spirit and one of the most uncomfortable feelings we can feel. Often, we don’t even know that we are feeling shame.
Here’s a clue on how to know it’s there, ask yourself, “If they knew __________ about me, what would they think?” or “Something I wouldn’t want the world to know about me is _______________.”
If you can fill in that blank with ANYTHING, whether it be a situation, a feeling, or an experience there is a high likelihood that there is some shame around that.
Several psychological studies show us that hiding or denying feelings leads to more stress on the body and/or increased difficulty avoiding the distressing thoughts and feelings (see here, here, and here).
In one study, for example, research participants were divided into two groups and shown disturbing medical procedure films while their stress responses were measured (e.g., heart rates, pupil dilation, sweat production).
One group was asked to watch the videos while letting their emotions show whereas the second group of subjects were asked to watch the films and act as if nothing were bothering them.
And guess what? The participants who suppressed their emotions (acted as if nothing bothered them) had significantly more physiological arousal (Gross and Levenson, 1997). The emotional suppressors may have appeared cool and calm but on the inside stress was erupting!
These types of studies show us that expressing a broad range of emotions (even the “not-so-positive” ones), having words to describe how we feel, and facial expressions to emote (yup that can mean crying) help us regulate our stress response.
When we don’t want to show a part of ourselves, we create a fake face or public persona for the world. That face can sometimes look cheery, with a happy smile, stating, “Everything happens for a reason, it is what it is.” When we go into hiding like that, we deny our truth. The real truth is, life can hurt sometimes. If you’re angry—and the angry feelings aren’t acknowledged—they get buried deep within our body. As described above, suppressed emotions can later manifest in anxiety, depression, or even physical illness.
It’s important to acknowledge the reality of our emotions by verbalizing them and moving them out of our bodies. This is what keeps us sane, healthy and relieves us of the tension caused by suppressing the truth. Once we honor our feelings, we embrace ALL of ourselves, the good, the bad and the ugly. And accepting ourselves just as we are is the path to a robust emotional life.
Isolation & Other Relational Problems
In denying our truth, we begin to live inauthentically with ourselves and with the world. We lose connection with ourselves, making it difficult for others to connect and relate to us. We might look unbreakable from the outside, but on the inside, we’re just scared little teddy bears longing for a hug.
Have you ever been around a sweet, sugary, “just think happy thoughts” pollyanna kind of person? How comfortable are you with spilling your guts about the deep emotions you’re feeling?
Even though that person might have the best intentions in the world, the message they are mindlessly sending is, “only good feelings are allowed in my presence.” Therefore, it makes it really difficult to express anything but “good vibes” around them. Consequently, you end up complying with the implied rules of, “I can only be a certain kind of person around you, I can’t be myself.”
The relationship with yourself is often reflected in the relationship you have with others. If you can’t be honest about your own feelings, how will you ever be able to hold space for someone else expressing real feelings in your presence? By curating a fake emotional world, we attract more fakeness resulting in counterfeit intimacy and superficial friendships.
Positivity can be toxic in controllable situations
One study shows that looking for silver linings (positive reappraisal) is only beneficial in uncontrollable contexts. For example, if we lose our job, we might benefit from thinking about our future opportunities. But if we try to use positive reappraisal in controllable situations, we might actually be worse off (Troy, Shallcross, & Mauss, 2013). For example, if our boss is verbally abusive, we’d be better off transferring to another department than using positive reappraisal to find the silver linings.
The theory is that if we can solve the problem that is causing our distress, we should do so. If we instead opt to use positivity to just decrease the negative emotions (but leave the problem intact), then it’s still going to make us feel bad, and we’ll have to keep using positivity in what may become a pointless cycle that only makes us feel worse in the long run.
Positivity can be toxic is when our identity is threatened
Some research suggests that it is inappropriate to use positivity (positive reappraisal) when our identities are being threatened. For example, when people experience racial oppression, looking for silver linings appears to actually lead to worse well-being (Perez & Soto, 2011).
Positivity can be toxic when we’re not good at it
If people are encouraging us to use an emotion regulation skill that we’re not good at, it could actually leave us worse off. And for many people, positivity can be a difficult skill to develop and implement. It requires cognitive resources and may rely on past practice (which we don’t all have). So if you’re not good at being positive, optimistic, or reflecting on your situation to find the silver lining, it could actually be bad for you (Ford & Troy, 2019).
Positivity can be toxic when we have too much of it
Most people think of positive emotion as a good thing, and more is better, right? Well, it turns out that too much positive emotion may actually be a bad thing. Too much positive emotion has been shown to be a risk factor for mania (Gruber, Johnson, Oveis, & Keltner, 2008). Indeed, mania is characterized by extreme positive emotions. The lack of inhibition that comes with positive emotions can also lead those in mania to make poorer decisions. So too much positive emotion actually can be a bad thing.
Positivity can be toxic when we’re obsessed with it
Being obsessed with happiness and focusing excessively on getting happy has also been shown to be bad for well-being (Ford & Mauss, 2014). It’s thought that this may create a discrepancy between how we feel now and how we want to feel. Indeed, having ultra-high expectations that we can’t reach tends to be bad for our mental health.
Examples of Non-Toxic & Accepting Statements
|Toxic Positivity||Non-Toxic Acceptance & Validation|
|“Don’t think about it, stay positive!”||“Describe what you’re feeling, I’m listening.”|
|“Don’t worry, be happy!”||“I see that you’re really stressed, anything I can do?”|
|“Failure is not an option.”||“Failure is a part of growth and success.”|
|“Everything will work out in the end.”||“This is really hard, I’m thinking of you.”|
|“Positive vibes only!”||“I’m here for you both good and bad.”|
|“If I can do it, so can you!”||“Everyone’s story, abilities, limitations are different, and that’s okay|
|“Delete Negativity”||“Suffering is a part of life, you are not alone.”|
|“Look for the silver lining.”||“I see you. I’m here for you.”|
|“Everything happens for a reason.”||“Sometimes we can draw the short straw in life. How can I support you during this hard time?”|
|“It could be worse.”||“That sucks. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”|
What makes positivity toxic is not the type of positivity. All types of positivity can be both helpful and unhelpful depending on the context. Here are examples of a few types of toxic positivity that people might express to us:
- Gratitude. I say: “I’m having a bad day.” Toxic response: “But you have so much to be grateful for.”
- Love. I say “I don’t know if I can have a relationship with my Sister. She doesn’t treat me with decency and respect.” Toxic response: “She’s family. You should love her no matter what.”
- Positive reappraisal. I say: “This job sucks.” Toxic response: “You’re lucky you even have a job.”
The general theme of toxic positivity is that someone is using positivity to cover up our true or negative experiences. It’s not that these toxic responses are bad advice, exactly. It’s just that they’re delivered in the wrong way at the wrong time. This is a common feature of passive-aggressive personalities.
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
It’s equally important to know when someone else may be acting toxically positive with you, potentially hurting your mental well-being. Signs that you may be on the receiving end of toxic positivity include:
- Feeling guilty about being sad, angry, or disappointed
- Hiding or disguising how you really feel
- Trying to be stoic or “get over” painful emotions
Sometimes, this type of behavior may serve as a coping mechanism to help people reduce or avoid stress. Rather than face a difficult emotion, people try to avoid it by putting a positive spin on a bad situation. While this might seem like an effective way of coping, denying or dismissing negative emotions can make it more difficult to actually cope effectively with such emotions.
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 to toxic 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.
In the end, give yourself permission to feel your feelings. These feelings are real, valid, and important. They can also provide information and help you see things about a situation that you need to work to change.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should act on every emotion that you feel. Sometimes it is important to sit with your feelings and give yourself the time and space to process the situation and accept your emotions before you take action.