What is toxic positivity?
“Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset.”
“We define toxic positivity as the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.”
Being positive is generally a good thing, but sometimes it can overflow into toxic positivity. When something unforeseen happens, sometimes it’s better to embrace the pain and work through your emotions rather than suppressing them or trying to float above them.
A lot of toxic positive aphorisms have been integrated into our cultural psyche:
- When something negative happens, many people hear “Just stay positive,” or “Look on the bright side,” or “Everything will be fine.”
- When someone dies, often we hear “Everything happens for a reason,” or “They are in a better place now.”
- When you’re depressed or sad, “Happiness (or any other emotion) is a choice,” or “Don’t worry, be happy!” or “It could be worse!” are common phrases others utter.
These things may come from a place of wanting to help, and the people saying them often want to help you feel better, but toxic positivity can also be used as a manipulation tactic or to gaslight others. It can be used to invalidate the emotional response someone has to an upsetting event. It can also be used to further racial prejudice, such as saying phrases like “All lives matter” or “I don’t see color,” which invalidate the pain and suffering of BIPOC populations face on a daily basis.
Toxic positivity is also harmful because:
- It is a form of shame that is basically used to tell someone that their emotions are wrong and they should change them.
- It can cause guilt. Along with shame, the person feels guilty for not appreciating the good things in their life.
- It can be an avoidance tactic, used to avoid emotions that are taking place during a negative event. This can prevent growth by avoiding the challenge as opposed to facing the situation.
Some behaviors to watch out for:
- Avoiding or brushing off problems rather than facing them head on.
- Not showing others or yourself how you really feel about something
- Minimizing others’ emotional life when they are being vulnerable or asking for help.
- Feeling guilt or shame about your own emotions, especially any “negative” ones.
- Putting on a happy face or being stoic about a problem or difficult emotion.
- Shaming other people when they “don’t have a positive attitude.”
- Throwing out aphorisms like the ones we spoke of previously if someone is having a bad day.
Be gentle with yourself and others during challenging times, and have the courage to feel those emotions and challenge yourself to grow.
Avoiding toxic positivity
If you feel like you’re being toxically positive towards yourself or others, try these things:
- Actively listen instead of chiming in right away.
- Use the Triforce of Communication to ask what they need.
- Show someone you care about them instead of using words.
- Learn to be gentle with yourself when it comes to the emotions you’re feeling.
- Remember it’s okay to feel more than one emotion at once.
- Limit your social media intake.
Here are some toxically positive statements and some alternatives to use instead:
- “I’m here to listen” instead of “Just stay positive.”
- “That must be so difficult” instead of “Look on the bright side.”
- “I’m here for you” instead of “Everything will be fine.”
- “I am so sorry” instead of “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “What can I do to help?” instead of “They are in a better place.”
- “Your feelings are totally valid” instead of “Happiness is a choice.”
- “What are you struggling with?” instead of “It could be worse!”
If someone is using toxic positivity on you, try pointing it out to them. Explain that your feelings are valid and you’re just struggling with them right then. Enforce your boundaries with those who continue to use toxic positivity on you.