What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It’s a “good vibes only” approach to life. And while there are benefits to being an optimist and engaging in positive thinking, toxic positivity instead rejects difficult emotions in favour of a cheerful, often falsely positive, facade.

Toxic positivity takes positive thinking to the extreme. This attitude doesn’t just stress the importance of optimism, it minimizes and denies any trace of human emotions that aren’t strictly happy or positive. With toxic positivity, negative emotions are seen as inherently bad. Instead, positivity and happiness are compulsively pushed, and authentic human emotional experiences are denied, minimised, or invalidated.

Toxic positivity can take many forms: it can be a family member who chastises you for expressing frustration instead of listening to why you’re upset; it can be a comment to “look on the bright side” or “be grateful for what you have”; it can be a meme that tells you to “just change your outlook to be happy”; it can be a friend who repeatedly posts how productive they’re being during lockdown; it can be your own sense that you shouldn’t dwell on your feelings of sadness, anxiety, loneliness, or fear.

Such statements are often well-intentioned—people just don’t know what else to say and don’t know how to be empathetic—but harmful. At their best, such statements come off as trite platitudes that let you off the hook so you don’t have to deal with other people’s feelings. At their worst, these statements end up shaming and blaming people who are often dealing with incredibly difficult situations.

Toxic positivity can actually harm people who are going through difficult times. Rather than being able to share authentic human emotions and gain unconditional support, people find their feelings dismissed, ignored, or outright invalidated. 

  • It’s shaming: when someone is suffering, they need to know that their emotions are valid, but that they can find relief and love in their friends and family. But toxic positivity tells people that the emotions they are feeling are wrong
  • It causes guilt: it sends a message that if you aren’t finding a way to feel positive, even in the face of tragedy, that you are doing something wrong
  • It avoids authentic human emotion: toxic positivity functions as an avoidance mechanism. When other people engage in this type of behaviour, it allows them to avoid emotional situations that might make them feel uncomfortable. But sometimes we turn these same ideas on ourselves, internalising these toxic ideas. When we feel difficult emotions, we then discount, dismiss, and deny them.
  • It prevents growth: it allows us to avoid feeling things that might be painful, but it also denies us the ability to face challenging feelings that can ultimately lead to growth and deeper insight.

Sometimes, we may think that pushing our emotions to the back of our mind and carrying on with being positive is the answer to getting over an issue. While this is not healthy, we don’t want to dwell on our negative feelings for a long time either. Mindfulness can be a healthier alternative to toxic positivity. Practicing mindfulness can help you face your feelings head on and identify the issue at hand, allowing you to effectively respond to it. Acknowledging that something is there and naming what it is validates your experience. If you can admit that you are feeling an emotion, whether it’s pleasant or uncomfortable, you can decide how to deal with it. 

Acknowledging your negative emotions is the first step toward healing from trauma and hurt. So the next time someone tells you to look on the bright side, you can remind them that acknowledging the dark side is the first step forward.

Erica Carter
Erica Carter

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