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  • Laryssa Levesque

When Optimism Becomes a Problem: Toxic Positivity

Updated: Aug 12, 2021

"Good vibes only", "Don't worry, be happy", "Be positive", "Look on the bright side"

toxic positivity

What is "Toxic Positivity"

Toxic positivity refers to the excessive use of optimism which fuels the belief that no matter how much emotional pain someone is in or how difficult their situation is, they should be "happy" or "positive" all the time. While being optimistic and trying to find the good in life serves some benefits, toxic positivity takes optimism to the extreme and rejects or dismisses any "negative" feelings, thoughts or attitudes.

The fact of the matter is that life is not all sunshine and rainbows, but yet, there is this toxic desire to try and make it so. Overgeneralizing happiness is invalidating to the natural human experience of pain, hardship, and struggle. In this article we will explore the signs of toxic positivity, why it is harmful, and how to avoid toxic positivity in order to promote healthy emotional and mental wellbeing.

A Quick Note on Emotions

I will refer to emotions in this article as being either "positive" or "negative", "good" or "bad" to illustrate the human tendency to label and judge emotions. However, it is crucial to understand that emotions are not inherently good or bad- they are natural responses to our internal and external environment that give us valuable information to help us understand ourselves, others, make decisions, and to take action.

Part of the problem with toxic positivity is that it feeds the belief that certain emotions are desirable (e.g., happiness, joy, excitement etc.) while others are to be avoided (e.g., anger, sadness, fear etc.). Not only is this not entirely possible (because emotions arise at an unconscious level and they cannot be controlled), it makes people feel bad about themselves if they do experience negative emotions. And even more damaging, this may lead into a potentially dangerous cycle of low mood, chronic anxiety, and negative self-beliefs.

Pro Tip: Try replacing the words "bad" or "negative" with "unwanted" or "difficult" when talking about emotions to reflect the pain and discomfort that accompanies them. This helps to remove any judgment associated with experiencing "negative" emotions.

Signs of Toxic Positivity

Toxic positivity can show up in many ways. Whether it is through subtle comments made by your friends and family when you share a stressful/negative situation or through more direct comments/presentations on social media advertising unrealistically "happy" lives, toxic positivity is out there. Here are some common signs that you might be exposed to toxic positivity personally or unknowingly impose those attitudes onto others:

  • Dismissing or brushing things off that are bothering you; "It is what it is"

  • Suppressing or minimizing difficult emotions; "It's not that bad", "I'll get over it"

  • Trying to fix or solve someone's negative emotional state; "If you just do something that makes you happy you won't feel sad anymore"

  • Hiding how you truly feel and feeling guilty if you do open up to someone

  • Thinking there is something wrong with you for having negative emotions

  • Trying to offer perspective when someone feels bad rather than validating their emotional experience; "It could be worse", "Look on the bright side"

  • Constantly putting on a "happy face" and never showing your true emotions

  • Shaming or criticizing others if they are anything but happy; "Why can't you just be happy today?", "Stop bringing the mood down", "Be grateful for what you have"

  • Hiding behind overly positive and optimistic quotes or sayings on social media

  • Watching videos, TV ads or other online content that is purely positive and only show people who are totally "happy"

What is toxic positivity

Why Toxic Positivity is Harmful

It is shaming and invalidating

If you experience anything but "positive" emotions, there must be something wrong with you, right? Nope! That couldn't be farther from the truth. You are human, which means you feel pain. Your urge to avoid pain and seek pleasure serves an adaptive function, but when misapplied to emotions it can be harmful. When society tells us that "happiness" is the goal, it creates a false reality in which we all must be "happy" 100% of the time, otherwise we are broken, less than, or have failed.

Author and psychologist Brené Brown suggests that shame - the feeling "I am bad" - is created through secrecy, silence, and judgement. In other words, when we don't confront and talk about our inner experiences (thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations) and evaluate them to be "bad" we then feel bad about ourselves.