Updated: May 22
Toxic positivity is the idea that we should hide or deny the negative feelings we encounter. It is the dismissal of emotional responses that we consider to be negative or “bad”, through the application of superficial reassurances, in the place of empathy (for example: “look on the bright side!” or “It could be a lot worse!”). This is often accompanied by the assumption that the negative emotions we feel are not useful or necessary.
Toxic positivity usually comes from a place of well-meaning (many of us have an intrinsic drive to want to ‘fix’ things), but can cause feelings of disconnect and shame – and can prevent us from processing important life events, and truly understanding our feelings. Although usually well-meaning, toxic positivity can be a kind of defence mechanism for people who feel discomfort sitting with their own (and others’) feelings – it can be used as a way to silence ‘uncomfortable’ discussions.
Toxic positivity could look like:
Following a catastrophe: “Everything happens for a reason.”
Telling someone to “Look on the bright side” or “Focus on the positives” following a bereavement.
Telling ourselves or others that “Other people have it much worse.”
Deciding that people who do not discuss their emotions, or who appear positive are ‘better’, or ‘stronger’ than those who do.
Telling a new parent to “Enjoy every moment!”
Telling someone who has suffered a miscarriage: “At least you know you can get pregnant.”
Telling someone who is experiencing depression to “Get over it.”
Telling a survivor of trauma, “I don’t understand why you choose to let this affect you? It happened in the past.”
Saying things like “There, there, don’t cry”, or “smile” when someone is feeling down or distressed.
Masking or suppressing our own emotions so that we appear more positive.
Feeling guilt or shame in relation to our negative emotional responses.
Reprimanding or shaming others for expressing anything other than positivity, or for not ‘bouncing back’ quickly enough.
The internet loves toxic positivity right now. We are bombarded with quotes urging us to look on the bright side (“good vibes only”), to live our best lives, to see the best in every situation – toxic positivity has become an ingrained part of our cultural landscape. Toxic positivity is also unsustainable; when we consistently deny ourselves access to our authentic emotional experiences, the cracks will eventually show.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t value to positive thinking – we know that our mindset can affect our day-to-day experiences. But positive thinking is the ability to apply an optimistic outlook when facing a problem – toxic positivity silences our rational negative responses to life events, and prevents us from processing the underlying emotions.
It is effectively a way to tell ourselves, and others, that our feelings are only valid if they are perceived to be “good”. Whereas often, we need to navigate through the “bad” feelings to learn about ourselves, heal and process, and eventually reach the “good”. Sometimes (for example, with bereavement) we need to accept that what has happened is sad, and will always, when touched on, feel like a loss.
Don’t be fooled by the 'positive' slant, though, toxic positivity is gaslighting.
Although at first glance, toxic positivity may seem to have a ‘positive’ focus, it is actually a form of gaslighting (when someone causes you to question your own reality). When we apply toxic positivity (to ourselves or others) we are denying the felt reality. When we encounter toxic positivity consistently, it can lead to the experience of cognitive dissonance (when we hold two conflicting beliefs in our minds – our reality, and the skewed “reality” we have been presented with), leading to feelings of confusion and unease.
What are the risks of toxic positivity?
There are many potential outcomes to the experience of toxic positivity, these may include:
Compounded or interrupted grief
When someone dies and the grieving party experiences consistent messaging urging them to “move on” or “focus on the positives”, it can leave them with no space to grieve.
This can result in the grieving person putting their feelings on the back-burner, which can eventually lead to compounded grief (where the feelings relating to several suppressed bereavements surface simultaneously in response to one trigger event – such as a subsequent bereavement), complications grieving or delayed grieving.
When we buy into the belief that we must always look on the bright side, we can feel as though we have failed when negative feelings surface – this can impact our perception of our self-worth. When someone feels pressure to always smile and appear positive, they can end up feeling lonely and isolated, and less likely to seek help when they need it.
Continuation of domestic abuse
When people experiencing abuse believe that they must retain a positive focus, always seeing the best in others and forgiving bad behaviour, they can understate the seriousness of the abuse they are experiencing. They may not even recognise their partner’s behaviour as abusive, because they are focused on filtering their experiences with a positive slant.
Our feelings can surface in other ways
When we deny ourselves the opportunity to sit with and really feel our emotional responses, we can end up out of touch with our authentic feelings. Our feelings can then manifest in distressing and confusing ways, such as the experience of anxiety and depression, dissociation (an involuntary feeling of disconnection from yourself and the world around you) and cognitive dissonance.
We can miss out on relational depth
When we apply toxic positivity to ourselves, we hide our vulnerability. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in ‘safe’ situations, enables us to build emotional depth and rich relationships with those close to us. In choosing to hide the negative, we are never truly sharing our full selves with anyone else.
How to overcome toxic positivity
Learn to sit with the discomfort – accept that shedding an attitude of ‘toxic positivity’ will require personal development and will take you out of your comfort zone and into a previously unexplored ‘vulnerable’ space. Understand that sometimes you can’t ‘fix’ what’s going on in your life – or other people’s lives, and that sometimes the best thing you can do is to listen and show empathy. This could include reflecting back to a friend how hard their experience is, and giving them space to process.
Be honest with yourself and others if you struggle with emotional stuff. Some of us struggle to find space for our own emotions and, therefore, find it very taxing when we encounter the emotional responses of others. Instead of trying to make their “bad” emotions disappear (to make yourself feel more comfortable), be honest that you find this hard, and that right now, you might not be the best person to go to for support.
Try to avoid statements and phrases that can invalidate feelings and experiences, such as telling someone to “smile” when they feel low. Validate their feelings using phrases like “I can hear this has been really hard for you” and check in to see what the other person wants from the conversation. For example, “Do you want me to help you find a solution for this, or do you need space to process and be heard?”
If you are applying toxic positivity to yourself, try to integrate these nurturing concepts into your internal narrative. If you are on the receiving end of toxic positivity, remember that boundaries are your friend. Be upfront with what you need from the person you’re approaching for support – if you need space to vent, manage their expectations by letting them know.
If you find that toxic positivity is a common response from someone in your life, it is worth considering that you may want something from the person you’re going to for support, that they just can’t give you. Choose your support network in line with your needs – sometimes that means understanding the limitations of those close to us.
There are no “bad” feelings
So remember, the reality is, that “living your best life” and “making the most of each day” might sometimes mean having days where you feel broken or tearful, where the weight of your lived experience feels like too much to carry – where you feel lost and alone, but where you are choosing to feel what that day has presented to you.
You are choosing to sit with whatever has surfaced, to tune into your reality, and to take the pressure off the need for every moment to be “positive”; because life is a mixture of our whole emotional spectrum – and to allow yourself to feel, is to live.
By Emma Faulkner in Counselling Directory
Published on 4th May, 2022
I am a fully qualified counsellor based in Orpington, Kent
I work with clients with problems including: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, identity issues, relationship problems, self-destructive behaviours, self-harm, childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence, domestic abuse, trauma, PTSD, eating disorders and body image problems.
I am easily accessible from local areas near me including Orpington, Bromley, Chislehurst, Petts Wood, Sidcup, Beckenham, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Knockholt, West Wickham, Chelsfield, Swanley and Bexley
Face-to-face in person or online counselling