A person making the okay sign with their hand.

The Truth About Toxic Positivity

What is Toxic Positivity?

Have you ever heard the phrases "good vibes only" or "just stay positive?" Have you ever told somebody about a problem, only for them to tell you, "Don’t be sad?" If so, chances are you’ve experienced toxic positivity. But what is toxic positivity, and why is it so harmful? Let’s dive in.

What Does Toxic Positivity Mean?

Typically, when we hear about positive thinking, it sounds like a good thing. Encouraging others to maintain an optimistic outlook, looking for the good in situations and feeling hopeful about the future — what could be wrong with that?

When times are tough, there is no doubt that some levels of optimism and positive thinking can support your well-being. However, toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how terrible somebody’s circumstances are, or how tragic an event is, they should maintain an unwaveringly positive mindset.

It rejects negative emotions and expects people who are struggling to present an easy-going, optimistic outlook no matter what. Toxic positivity may be something you experience from others or a mindset you expect from yourself, and it doesn't help you build self-love.

Examples of Toxic Positivity

Here are some common signs of toxic positivity:

  • People who say, “happiness is a choice,” implying that no matter what happens in life, you can choose to be happy. This phrase can minimize people’s pain, as it suggests that they are choosing to be upset when they could simply choose to be happy instead.
  • Telling somebody to “look on the bright side” to “stay positive” or “don’t be sad” after a huge life event, such as a job loss or relationship breakdown. These comments are meant to be sympathetic and comforting but they can make people feel like they aren’t allowed to express how they truly feel or allow themselves to experience negative emotions.
  • Brushing off somebody’s sadness about a situation by telling them “things could be worse.”
  • Telling others to “look at the positives” of a devastating situation such as the death of a loved one.

Why is Toxic Positivity Harmful?

General optimism and positivity aren’t harmful and can, in fact, benefit mental well-being. Toxic positivity, however, can seriously stigmatize those with struggles or mental health issues and discourage people from seeking help when they need it. The following are examples of ways it can be harmful:

  • It may prevent people from seeking help. If somebody is repeatedly told what they’re going through is not that bad, that things could be worse, or to look on the bright side, they may ignore more serious long-term health consequences. Somebody experiencing toxic positivity from others may be less likely to see a professional counselor or therapist and miss out on crucial emotional support.
  • It causes shame. When somebody is suffering a loss or another devastating event, they need to feel validated in their emotions. Toxic positivity can make people think they are overreacting and feel shame or guilt for their negative emotions.
  • It ignores systemic issues. In many cases, toxic positivity overlooks systemic issues. People in bad situations can’t always positively think themselves out of it — changing your circumstances often involves resources that not everybody has access to.
  • It can cause low self-esteem. If somebody feels that they can’t just stay positive or pull themselves together, despite advice telling them to, they may feel ashamed of their inability to control their emotions. This shame can lead to even more negative emotions and even further guilt, creating a toxic shame spiral that leads to low self-esteem over time.

How to Avoid Toxic Positivity

Whether you experience toxic positivity at the hands of others or you recognize this behavior in yourself, it is crucial to move away from that kind of mindset as soon as possible.

Here are three ways you can avoid toxic positivity.

1. Accept Your Negative Emotions

Although nobody likes to feel negative emotions, accept that they are a natural part of human life, and you will feel them from time to time. If you or those around you experience negative emotions, provide a safe space for people to talk to you about how they feel and speak to a trusted friend, family member or professional about your negative emotions.

2. Focus on Realistic Goals

Toxic positivity sets unrealistic goals, encouraging the view that we should be positive and optimistic no matter what. Rather than trying to be positive 24/7, keep a gratitude list or journal to give yourself a space to feel positive emotions without making your entire identity about the need for positivity. A realistic goal for you could be to write down one good thing every day, instead of attempting to only ever feel positive emotions.

3. Curate Your Online and Personal Circle

If you notice yourself spending time with people or following social media accounts that promote toxic positivity, step away. Avoid sharing your problems with people who promote toxic mindsets and unfollow social media accounts that make you feel ashamed.

The Bottom Line

Toxic positivity can be subtle, but once you have learned the signs, you can actively avoid developing this mindset yourself or encouraging it in others. Set realistic goals, allow yourself to feel negative emotions, and support others in an authentic way that allows them to tell their whole truth.