Toxic positivity is when when a person projects positivity and happiness no matter what, even if they’re in a negative situation or mindset.
There’s a lot of buzz around toxic positivity, but what is it really? Well, the basic definition of toxic positivity is when you force yourself to stay positive, regardless of how bad or sad a situation is. It also involves dismissing any negative emotions and giving false reassurances instead of genuine empathy.
Here’s how to spot toxic positivity, plus healthy ways to cope.
Choosing positivity over negativity is fine when that choice is genuine. But toxic positivity (aka toxic optimism) creeps in when we’re forced to pretend everything’s always fine all the time. Fact is, things aren’t always fine all the time and we need to be able to face that.
A small 2022 study of 75 Gen Z peeps found it can be unhealthy to block out negative, painful emotions instead of allowing your mind to process them naturally. This doesn’t always relate to deeper trauma or mental health issues. Simply not being allowed to express disagreement or vent after a bad day can impact your mood and social relationships.
“Optimism can become toxic if it’s overwhelming or willfully abusive,” says Jess Lovibond, therapist and Director of JLTS Family Services.
Toxic positivity can show up anywhere and is very common in families, friend groups, schools, and workplaces.
Happiness can turn toxic in any number of ways. It can be environmental, the people in charge of a school or workplace might force an inappropriately positive message on employees or students. Or your buddy might insist you come out partying instead of taking time to get over a breakup.
“Sometimes that also means refusing to acknowledge what other people are going through, even making them feel guilty.” says Hannah Porteous-Butler, life coach and Director of The People Practice Group. “There’s pressure on young people, particularly entering the workplace, to prove themselves without proper mental health support.”
According to Lovibond, it’s also a denial of need.
“Telling someone who’s unwell that they’ll be fine when they clearly need medical attention,” Lovibond says. “Or telling a child who lives with abuse that all adults can be trusted no matter what.”
In either case, there’s a deliberate denial of an emotional need happening. The workplace puts productivity over their employee’s mental health. Your buddy doesn’t want to lose their wingperson for the evening so they coerce you.
Toxic positivity can also be internalized. Lots of us are exposed to a constant barrage of optimism from social media and friendship groups. We can start to think there’s something wrong with us for not always feeling happy.
Here, we’re refusing to meet our own emotional needs for all sorts of potential reasons:
- Bad social habits we’ve picked up
- Failing to understand our own boundaries
- Past trauma affecting our response to negative feelings
BTW, it’s important to note that toxic positivity usually comes from a good place.
Remember that most individuals aren’t toxic in their positivity, they’re genuinely trying to help or make you feel better,” Lovibond says. “It’s when you’re hearing and seeing it all the time with no alternative views that the impact can become toxic.
Also keep in mind that most people aren’t therapists, they think they’re helping when we say we’re feeling upset and they offer optimism. But if the recipient isn’t in the right place to receive that optimism, it can have a negative impact.
To be a more complete and emotionally healthy person, you need to be able to process positive and negative feelings. Being able to flexibly regulate our emotions is a critical life skill. Learning to process our own feelings might also make us better at relating to other people.
To learn something, you’ve got to experience it. Toxic positivity blocks us from becoming our more complete selves by refusing to face the existence of painful, unpleasant emotions. Over time, this can actually change your brain.
“It makes us function on a level that isn’t natural,” Lovibond says. “If you have to slap on a smile and pretend everything’s great, that takes a huge amount of energy. If you have to do that for too long, it’s going to get emotionally exhausting very quickly.”
Porteous-Butler also notes that, from a neuroscientific perspective, long-term toxic positivity can strengthen negative neural networks.
“You’ll start to embody that negativity,” she says. “It can affect your body language. It can make you sick. Stress affects your limbic system.”
Are people around you doing or saying things which avoid, deny or minimize your feelings? If so, that’s a sign of toxic positivity.
If you say you’ve had a bad day at work and someone’s reply is “be thankful you’ve got a job,” that’s toxic positivity. It denies your right to feel bad about your day by presenting a false binary. Either you have to feel good about work or you’re somehow being ungrateful for having a job. In reality, there are countless shades of grey between those two positions.
Toxic positivity often pervades our environment without anyone having to do anything. Social media is flooded with ‘positive vibes only’ content. It’s heavily curated and edited, but presented as authentic.
“There’s absolutely a space for optimism,” Porteous-Butler says. “Positive mantras, ‘good vibes only,’ they have their place. But if you’re always focusing on those, you’re just putting a mask over your feelings. You’re not identifying what’s actually going on.”
When we consume too much social media, we can start to feel a dissonance when our feelings don’t match what we see on the screen. We think, if these people are happy all the time, why aren’t I?
That said, it’s a good idea to go through you social media accounts and assess which profiles might be having a negative effect on your mental health.
Your approach to dealing with toxic positivity is going to depend on how and why it’s impacting your life. Some common techniques might include:
- Communicate your emotional boundaries as clearly as you can.
- Make a conscious effort to accept and understand your feelings.
- Examine how past trauma might be distorting your reaction to negativity.
- Develop active listening skills to understand other people’s feelings better.
- Change your work or social environments if your boundaries aren’t respected.
Lovibond notes that it’s important to stop comparing yourself to others.
“Stop comparing yourself to everyone else. You’re different,” she says. “Accept your emotions and know that it’s the ups and downs that make us normal. Labelling our emotions helps us understand what they are.”
Fake optimism stunts your personal growth by limiting your exposure to authentic experiences. So to counter its impact, it makes sense to look at the polar opposite mindset. “Tragic optimism” is a mentality that accepts negative emotions and proactively searches for meaning in them.
Yes, that sometimes means inventing lessons that simply ain’t there, they’re all in your head. But researchers who look at post-traumatic growth suspect this might not matter. Traumatic events and negative emotions only have the significance that we choose to give them.
Cultivating a mindset that instinctively looks for lessons and growth opportunities during bad times means less reason to avoid negativity. You can’t avoid feeling bad forever, but you can at least make it a productive experience. This takes focus, time and practice, not simple platitudes, but it’s often worthwhile.
Wherever it’s coming from in your life, toxic positivity enforces a vicious cycle where you feel bad about feeling bad. How you break that cycle is a deeply personal journey.
You might look at therapy, unpicking past experiences to understand why you’ve come to react to negativity in a negative way. Or you might need to rewire yourself to view challenges as opportunities, a coach can help you with that.
Sometimes, it only takes a conversation. Humans aren’t that different to one another, and negative feelings are a common part of what we call life. Let’s try to enjoy it while we can.