What Is Toxic Positivity — and How Is It Harming Your Loved Ones?

By Jamie GreysonLast Updated Feb 6, 2021 4:49:59 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision/Getty Images

We’re all familiar with the "Is the glass half empty or half full?" question. Sure, it’s a straightforward way to gauge one’s inclination toward pessimism or optimism, but, often, real-life situations aren’t so clear-cut. There seems to be a societal pressure to "try and see the silver lining" or to cheer up our friends and offer solutions when they come to us with grievances, frustrations and problems. But is leaning toward positivity and constantly inserting a "bright side" point of view really the best way to go about things? It turns out that line of thought may be a slippery slope.

While engaging in positive thinking can be helpful, there’s been a swell in what mental health experts have dubbed "toxic positivity" — "the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset" (via Verywell Mind). This overemphasis on the positive side of things means folks end up dismissing negative or difficult emotions instead of facing them. And, as it turns out, that kind of never-ending cheerful facade can do more harm than good.

How Does Toxic Positivity Affect Your Daily Life?

In essence, toxic positivity throws moderation out the window, favoring a semblance of cheer over someone’s actual lived experience. This kind of attitude can minimize — and, at its worst, flat-out deny — emotions that aren’t deemed positive. But it’s important to hold space for both the good and the bad, the happy and the sad.

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Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored just how insidious toxic positivity can be when it’s the only attitude one’s exuding. That is, over the past year people have had to deal with tremendous loss and grief, unemployment, social isolation, shutdowns, difficult home and family dynamics and more — all of it is unprecedented, heavy and, largely, rivered with "negative" emotions. Not to mention, we’re also spending a lot more time online and being bombarded by the "positive vibes" of overly curated, only-the-good-stuff social media accounts.

More often than not, people in your life who make "silver lining"-type remarks are well-intentioned, but imagine sitting down with a close friend, family member or confidante and being told, in the face of all of these challenges, to look for a bright side. This kind of response would feel frustrating — and result in harm — for a number of reasons. First off, it makes the person going through the difficult experiences feel both guilty and shameful: The guilt stems from the feeling that they’re doing something "wrong" by not finding a bright side, while the shame comes from the fact that they probably just want someone to validate their anger, sadness or grief and, in not getting that support, their emotions can feel "wrong."

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Additionally, toxic positivity "functions as an avoidance mechanism," explains Verywell Mind. Sure, no one wants to feel uncomfortable, pained or upset — those aren’t optimal experiences. But running away from these feelings, be they yours or someone else’s, means you’re dismissing how you really feel. According to Psychology Today, "When you deny or avoid unpleasant emotions, you make them bigger."

And when you continually avoid them, or others encourage you to pay them no mind, those feelings trap you in a cycle of unprocessed, ever-growing emotions. Noel McDermott, a clinical psychotherapist, told Refinery29 something similar, stating that, "If you avoid feelings that challenge you — or encourage others to avoid them — you narrow the range of relationships you can have, and you narrow the life experiences you can have." Needless to say, internalizing and practicing positivity to this extreme, toxic extent is unsustainable.

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What Should You Do Instead of “Being Positive” in the Face of Difficult Emotions?

It’s important to remember that we can’t be happy all the time. In fact, not only is it okay to not be okay, it’s essential for growth. "Emotions are not ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ all positive or all negative. Instead, think of them as guidance," Psychology Today notes. "Emotions help us make sense of things. If you’re sad about leaving a job, it probably means that experience was meaningful. If you feel anxious about a presentation, it probably means you care about how you are perceived." In many ways, our emotions are breadcrumbs leading us along a path to understand our reactions, needs, desires and so on.

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Photo Courtesy: Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision/Getty Images

While sharing a cute puppy video with someone who’s feeling blue may bring them some temporary cheer, it can’t "solve" their sadness. "We can’t select which emotions we’re going to have. If we try to get rid of one set of emotions, we’ll get rid of them all and become numb to both pleasant and unpleasant emotions," McDermott says. "If you try to get rid of bad emotions, you damage your whole internal world."

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So, what can you do instead if you’re feeling down — or if you’re supporting a friend who’s going through a difficult time? Instead of offering up a "silver lining" or another "things happen for a reason" mantra, listen to your friend (or yourself). When we’re going through something difficult, we just want to be heard and validated. Don’t spin it — sit with it. In the long run, you’ll be happier for it.