There’s nothing wrong with looking at the bright side of things. But the toxic positivity mindset enforces the idea that despite how bad things are in life, we can, and should, still find a way to be optimistic.
This mindset takes the "look on the bright side" to an extreme by unintentionally discounting and dismissing the intricacies of the human experience and our wide range of emotions through brute positivity.
The reality is that life sucks sometimes. Bad things happen. We get hurt or our needs don’t get met. But ignoring or suppressing uncomfortable emotions doesn’t help us cope. If anything, toxic positivity may exacerbate more anguish.
Sometimes we can spread toxic positivity without even realizing it. Read through the following examples if you're unsure of whether you've encountered or accidentally spread toxic positivity:
"Don't worry. It'll get better!"
"Just think, it could be worse."
"Everything happens for a reason."
"Think happy thoughts."
"That sounds bad, but so-and-so recently went through..."
“Don’t dwell on the negative!”
“There is so much to be grateful for!”
“Positive vibes only!”
You've probably said one or more of these statements to a loved one, thinking you were helping them navigate a devastating or frustrating life experience.
You meant well, but statements like this can unintentionally place the recipient in a position of feeling like whatever they're going through isn't that bad, and they should be grateful that things are worse. In other words, even well-intentioned advice can come across as invalidating.
Or, maybe you said the above to yourself during hard times, accidentally downplaying your own emotions and experience. And even if you tried to trick yourself into suppressing the negative feelings or thoughts, did that method actually work? Or did it, perhaps, trigger even more shame, anger, or resentment?
Is there a chance that encouraging positivity can do more harm than good?
Imagine the following scenario: Melissa, age 28, learned her fiance of 2 years strayed outside of their relationship just months before the wedding. The betrayal hurt deeply, but she quickly slipped into action mode. She went to work negotiating back deposits and informing guests the marriage was longer happening.
Upon learning the news, Melissa's best friend (and would-be maid of honor) was furious but adamant about finding a silver lining to help her friend feel better and move forward.
"Well, at least you found out before you two got married. Be thankful for that!"
It was fortunate Melissa found out before the two were legally married, but the pain was still legitimate, and part of her wished she didn't even know about the infidelity. The discomfort of calling friends and family to tell them the wedding was off made her feel ashamed.
Anytime Melissa opened up about how deeply she hurt, her best friend was quick to remind her to look at the positives -- how much fun she would have dating again, how she was better off without him, how finding out was saving her years of wasting her life with the wrong person. She encouraged Melissa to try to focus on these “good parts” rather than dwell on her sadness.
Melissa's friend did what any good friend does; she offered hope and pushed toward a positive outlook to make her friend feel better. But should she or could she have done anything differently to make Melissa feel heard and supported?
Being a supportive friend isn’t just about saying what someone might want to hear. It also isn’t about making everything seem great. Support comes from genuinely listening, acknowledging, and validating another person’s experience.
This can be hard, but letting ourselves and others have the space to feel the depths of emotion can be validating and empowering. When positivity is thrust upon us, we risk suppressing our emotions or feeling like a failure when we think optimistically but don't feel optimistic.
You may be wondering what you should say instead of brute optimism in dire or frustrating moments and life events.
Consider the following examples:
"I hear what you are saying, and it's okay to be frustrated and upset."
"That sounds really hard, but you are doing the best you can at the moment."
"It sounds like it's hard to see the positives right now, and that's okay."
"I know you're going through a lot. Is there anything I can do to help?"
“No matter how you feel, I am here for you.”
Supportive statements acknowledge emotions without judgment. They show that you are genuinely listening and aren’t afraid of difficult feelings.
When we refrain from toxic positivity and instead use supportive statements like the above, we effectively communicate to our loved ones that we are not only a safe space to land when things are tough, but their emotions and frustrations are also valid.
Let’s review another scenario: At the pandemic's beginning, Adam, 48, suddenly lost his job due to company downsizing. Like millions of Americans, Adam feared losing his home and livelihood if he didn't find another job fast.
For months he struggled to land a job that matched his experience or previous pay. Eventually, Adam took a retail management position paying half his last salary, but it was full-time and offered benefits.
Adam would quickly remind himself that he should be thankful for even finding a job, let alone one with benefits, anytime he felt frustrated by his circumstances.
He knew firsthand many of his former colleagues were struggling to find work, so he kept trying to convince himself he “should” be grateful. Yes, he was struggling financially, and yes, he felt like he had no choice but to take a temporary step back in his career, but wasn't he one of the lucky ones?
Trying to tell yourself how to feel doesn’t work. Feelings are natural responses to internal and external stimuli. They aren’t good or bad. They just are. Shaming yourself for having certain feelings tends to make them more complicated.
Likewise, when we suppress our emotions -- be it frustration, anger, or grief, we neglect to give ourselves the space to feel the depths we're experiencing. Failing to acknowledge or even talk about what we're going through will not make our feelings disappear.
You can combat self-imposed toxic positivity by saying:
"I have a right to feel overwhelmed."
"It's okay that I don't feel happy right now. Things are tough."
"I've been through hard times before, and I will get through this, but right now, it sucks."
“It’s okay to feel competing emotions at the same time. I can be grateful and worried.”
“I am only human, and it’s okay to have emotions.”
“Even if this feeling is uncomfortable, I trust that I can sit with it.”
Life happens to all of us, and it's okay not to feel okay. Untangling toxic positivity means letting go of perfectionism and control. You can’t control all the outcomes. You can, however, focus on how you respond to stressful events.
Being met with toxic positivity can keep us and others in dangerous or even life-threatening situations. For example, telling someone who is experiencing depression that "it could be worse" or "there is so much to be grateful for in your life!" may keep them from getting the help they need.
Additionally, people in abusive relationships may feel encouraged to stay with their partners if others make toxic comments like, "at least you're not alone," or "he seems like such a good guy!"
Imagine this scenario: Evan had been with his partner for six years, but the relationship recently took a turn. His boyfriend, Marcus, was becoming increasingly aggressive in fights, and Evan feared for his safety.
When Evan confided his concerns in his best friend, she quickly replied, "Marcus loves you so much, and I know you love him! He would never hurt you on purpose, so don't worry about that!"
Evan, wanting to believe that Marcus would never willingly hurt him, reluctantly agreed with his friend. She was friends with Marcus, so she must be right, right?
Had Evan voiced his concerns to a friend who didn't respond with toxic positivity and instead listened, offered resources, or concrete advice, he may have left the relationship before it turned violent.
As you can see, toxic positivity can inadvertently tell people that their emotions and experiences are not valid. By trying to force them to look at the positive, this mindset can keep individuals from seeking the help they need.
Is Negativity Okay?
Humans feel a wide range of emotions, each serving a role in our emotional well-being. Forcing positivity may temporarily convince you or someone else that everything must be okay, but it's also normal to feel frustrated or sad. Life can be annoying and heartbreaking at times.
We don't advise you to dwell on your pain, but we do encourage you to be bold enough to address your emotions and become an active listener to those around you.
There is a difference between accepting your emotions and wallowing in them. Accepting emotions means identifying and labeling how you feel without judgment. Wallowing often comes from a place of self-pity. For example, you might believe that you’re the only person experiencing that pain and that life is tremendously unfair. With that kind of pessimistic mindset, of course it’s difficult to feel better!
So while some negativity is normal, be mindful of tendencies to spiral. Gratitude, self-care, and positive coping strategies can help you manage difficult emotions without suppressing or exacerbating them.
Have you experienced toxic positivity, either from others or self-imposed? How has it affected you during the healing process? We'd love for you to share your story with our community in the comments.