Defining Toxic Positivity And Naming Its Red Flags

When you're confiding in a loved one about your bad day, you'll most likely get one of two responses: "It's okay to not be okay" or something along the lines of "Look on the bright side of things." One of these responses validates your emotions by acknowledging that it's normal to have bad days, while the other almost makes you feel like it's your fault for being so pessimistic. They mean well, but it can be hurtful. 

When someone advises you to stay positive, they're most likely not trying to diminish your feelings. From their perspective, they might just be trying to help you move past your sadness by focusing on happy thoughts and being optimistic about what's to come. Maybe unyielding optimism is what gets them through the day. They probably don't want you to be bogged down by sadness and to just get on with your life. 

Nowadays, we're expected to suck it up, put on some war paint, and face whatever the day throws at us with a smile and zero complaints because, all things considered, it could be a lot worse. But this way of thinking, just like focusing too much on productivity, can do more harm than good to your mental health. We might consider it a coping strategy to keep us going through tough times, but it's actually the result of toxic positivity. And, as the name suggests, it can be dangerous.

How toxic positivity can be damaging

We've all experienced toxic positivity at some point — even if we didn't realize it. Clinical psychologist Holly Schiff defined the term to News18 as: "The belief that people should put a positive spin on every and all experiences, despite their emotional pain or difficult circumstances." Toxic positivity can manifest in several phrases like "things could be worse," "everything happens for a reason," "happiness is a choice," "stay positive," "good vibes only," and many more, both subtle and obvious.

Essentially, these statements deny your emotions by diverting your focus elsewhere. Toxic positivity often contributes to the categorization of emotions as simply either good or bad. When we experience the emotions we've labeled bad, we tend to feel guilty, and in a pursuit to avoid this guilt, we shove them aside instead of acknowledging and accepting them. You might even find yourself brushing off serious emotionally-triggering events like losing a job or a family member. 

It's important to remember that there's nothing wrong with being optimistic, but problems arise when we deny our painful emotions to stay in a false state of happiness. It's a bit like applying a band-aid to a broken arm to dull the pain rather than getting it fixed. As psychotherapist and counselor John-Paul Davies explained to The Independent: "In order to move through pain, you need to feel it — and positive thinking can become toxic if you're pressuring someone to always see the bright side of things." 

How to deal with toxic positivity

Before you deal with future toxic positivity, you need to alter your perspective to understand that there's no such thing as a bad emotion. An emotion is your body and mind's natural response to a circumstance, and it's completely valid, however messy it may be. Instead of locking emotions you view as negative in a cage, you need to accept how you're feeling. When she spoke to Well+Good, Jasmine Marie, a breathwork practitioner, encouraged taking a deeper look at your emotions and thinking of them as messages. 

Marie recommended approaching them with curiosity and asking yourself, "What do I need to pay attention to?" or "What do I need to give myself compassion on?" Once you know what you're feeling, you can find healthy ways to cope. Know that you can acknowledge the good things in life without dismissing the bad ones; it doesn't have to be either/or. If you have a hard time differentiating your feelings, you could try journaling to put your thoughts to paper.

Don't look to social media for comfort either. It's full of uplifting quotes, stories, and messages that inadvertently contribute to toxic positivity. Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, a clinical psychologist, warned Healthline that we often see idealized, filtered, and fleeting glimpses of someone's life and take them at face value and, "As a result, social media gives off the impression that everyone is handling hard times 'better than you,' [and] this fosters a sense of loneliness, shame, and embarrassment."