When Optimism Becomes a Problem: Toxic Positivity
"Good vibes only", "Don't worry, be happy", "Be positive", "Look on the bright side"
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"
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.
Toxic positivity is the perfect breeding ground for shame because when people do express some negative emotion and are invalidated or dismissed, they shut down and retreat back to the safety of their own mind. The message they are sent is that it is not okay to feel and that it is somehow wrong for having negative emotions. This message gets internalized to then believe "I am not ok" or "I am wrong", which are both highly shameful beliefs about oneself.
It can impact our health
Imagine how exhausting it must be to constantly be trying to control how you feel- that is, to avoid the bad stuff and express "good vibes only". Toxic positivity leads us to believe that we can dictate how we feel at any given time and leads us into a dangerous habit of emotional suppression.
There is a host of research to suggest that bottling up emotions is bad for our physical health. For example, emotional suppression has been linked to weakened immune system functioning, sleep impairments, muscle pain, fatigue, and digestive issues.
Psychological health is also impacted by emotional suppression. Some research has shown that when trying to suppress negative emotions, there is actually an increase in internal psychological distress. Therefore, although it is totally possible to hide how you feel on the surface, doing so will only create a lot of stress for you on the inside. And, in addition to this added stress, hiding your emotions is associated with greater risk of depression. One study, for example, found that individuals who engaged in "positive experience-behaviour dissociation" (i.e., putting on a "happy face" when they were not "happy") had greater depressive symptoms and lower wellbeing.
It affects the "good" emotions
When we operate under the belief that "negative" emotions are bad, it implies that we should never experience such emotions and avoid them at all costs. What ends up happening is that we suppress these "bad" emotions and consequently inhibit our ability to feel any emotion. Emotions operate on one switch- it's either on or off. When you turn off the switch to avoid the painful emotions, you also turn off the ability to feel all the good ones. You essentially numb yourself to feeling the full range of human emotion.
Not to mention, research has shown a rebound effect when we suppress emotions. When we try to avoid or stop feeling a certain way, we actually end up feeling that emotion to a greater extent later on. So not only does toxic positivity give a dangerous illusion of control that leads to emotional suppression, but it also backfires! The very emotions we try to avoid or suppress end up coming back bigger and stronger.
It prevents growth
Simply put, when we are uncomfortable we grow. If we never challenge ourselves to go outside of our comfort zone, then how can we expect to grow as individuals? I always say to my clients "get comfortable with the discomfort". When you get that urge to retreat from something painful, that is a sign you need to stay with it just a little longer. Much to your surprise, you will probably be ok in the end and you will have gained an invaluable skill that will make you more resilient in the face of adversity and overall more confident.
How to Avoid Toxic Positivity
Face your feelings
Acknowledge and confront all your emotions, whether good or bad. Avoiding them will only make them worse in the long run, so get comfortable with the discomfort and sit with your emotions. You may also want to try writing your feelings down, as studies have shown that journalling and labelling emotions can actually reduce emotional reactivity by lessening the intensity of negative emotions.
Validate emotional experiences
If someone is taking the brave step to open up to you and be vulnerable with their emotions, it is crucial that you listen and validate rather than ignore and dismiss. This is especially important for creating meaningful and fulfilling relationships with others. Actively listening to and validating how others feel increases feelings of connectedness, trust, and safety within a relationship.
Pro Tip: It is not your job to try and solve or fix someone's negative emotional experience. All you need to do is be open to listening to their pain, acknowledge that they are hurting, and show genuine understanding and compassion towards their experience. You can still validate someone's experience even if you don't feel the same way. Try making statements like "It's understandable you feel that way" or "I can see why you are feeling like this"
Taking a non-judgemental and accepting approach towards difficult emotions is actually shown to improve mental health. Accepting emotions means that you are allowing them to be just as they are without trying to change or suppress them. Let go of the need to control uncomfortable experiences. When we accept our emotions we end the exhausting struggle of trying to get rid of them which frees up more time to focus on what matters to us. And, when we stop fighting our emotions, we lessen their power by basically saying "you're not so bad and scary".
Strengthen healthy relationships
Shame cannot exist with empathy, according to Brené Brown. It can do wonders for our mental health when we open up to a trusted person with our painful experiences and are met with an empathetic response. This makes us feel heard and validated. Sometimes, however, opening up can backfire when we are met with toxic responses of optimism, only to make us feel even worse about how we are feeling. So although it is definitely good to open up, be aware of toxic responses from those in your life and be sure to strengthen relationships that foster healthy emotional wellbeing. You may also need to set emotional boundaries with people in your life and work on assertive communication to let them know if their behaviour is hurting you.
Focus on self-compassion
In addition to having a strong support network of people who are empathetic towards you, it is also extremely important to be empathetic towards ourselves too. When you are faced with difficult emotions, meet them with compassion and empathy. There is nothing wrong with you if you feel a certain way, you are human, and we humans feel some pretty tough stuff sometimes. Try treating your emotions with kindness and curiosity, just as you might treat a small child who is hurting. In fact, learning to be more self-compassionate can actually help alleviate depressive symptoms and is linked to overall greater mental health.
Pro Tip: Watch out for the words "but" or "should" in your vocabulary- these are signs that you are invalidating how you feel. Instead, try approaching difficult emotions with a "yes, and..." attitude. For example, "I am feeling sad today and I know that I will get through it" rather than "I am feeling sad today but I really shouldn't be because I have a fun day planned".
Don't compare your situation to others'
Social media can be a pretty toxic place in general. Very rarely do you ever see someone posting an authentic experience of some "negative" emotion, let alone posts that truly reflect someone's authentic life. In a word of social media "influencers" and the ability to distort reality through selective posts, nothing you see online is ever what it seems. This isn't some novel breakthrough but yet so many of us fall into the trap of feeling inadequate when we endlessly scroll through our newsfeeds and see people who appear to be "happy" or like their life is "perfect". Comparing your level of happiness or success in life to that of what you see online is a recipe for feeling inadequate, less than, or flawed. Be wary of what you see on the internet or even restrict the types of posts/people you follow to limit your exposure to toxic and unrealistic views of how we "should" be.
The Bottom Line
All in all, being optimistic only becomes toxic when it is used in excess and in inappropriate times. It can be good to try and find the silver lining in situations only if we are also acknowledging and validating any unwanted emotions associated with it. That said, sometimes we need to keep that positive outlook completely off the table and just be present and accepting of what life brings. After all, it is okay to not be okay.
Talking to a psychotherapist can help you learn how to regulate your emotions more effectively and ultimately help you avoid the toxic and invalidating effects of too much optimism.