Updated: Aug 30
We are often told that positive thinking is the key to living a happy and fulfilling life. But what happens when positivity becomes toxic? Toxic positivity is a term used to describe the idea that we should only focus on positive emotions and experiences, while ignoring or avoiding negative ones. While it might appear ideal, at first glance, psychology has found that it can cause more harm than good. So, in this blog post, we will explore what toxic positivity is, how to avoid it, and why people might choose it.
Toxic positivity is the concept of rejecting, ignoring or invalidating negative emotions while promoting positive vibes. It represents an undue pressure to be happy and upwardly mobile in outlook, almost as if being sad is a protracted disability. A toxic positive outlook is typified by saying things such as ‘Just think positively’ or ‘good vibes only,’ while disregarding the feelings of those who may not be feeling positive. Positive thinking, in moderation, is an essential part of personal growth and a healthy approach to life. But when positivity becomes the only acceptable emotion, it can become problematic and exhausting.
The harm in toxic positivity includes suppressing emotions, invalidating feelings, and creating a culture of shame when those struggling with mental health conditions fail to keep up with expectations. It could make people feel guilty or ashamed of feeling sad or negative which could lead to internalizing thoughts and feelings causing depression, anxiety or chronic feelings of self-doubt. Without validation of negative emotions, they are not learned and therefore can’t be dealt with constructively. Suppressing these emotions tends to make them grow in momentum, making things worse in the long run.
To avoid toxic positivity, start by affirming those emotions that you think are bad or negative. Accept that they are part of the human experience and represent a tremendous opportunity to grow and learn. Try to be present for someone genuinely and listen to them actively, making sure they feel heard and not judged. Addressing someone who is grieving with words across the lines of “You will be fine” or “It could be worse” tends to create an unnecessarily dismissive tone. Philosopher Carl Rogers once said: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change.” Meditating, engaging in self-care activities like exercise or yoga, and talking to a willing ear can subside feelings of sadness and anxiety.
People might choose toxic positivity as a way of dealing with their own anxieties and fears by projecting their fears onto others. A positive mentality could help reassure them – people cannot control their thoughts, but they can control how they react to them. When people indicate toxic positivity while providing support, they could assume it is an effective technique for everyone. Believing themselves that this approach helped them overcome a challenge, they do not have the realization that people are vastly different and must come to an understanding of how to care for others.
Toxic positivity is a growing phenomenon, potentially causing more harm than good. A balanced life involves experiencing and processing negative and positive emotions. It’s essential to accept our imperfections, learn from negative emotions, and seek a moral balance that acknowledges the nature of existence’s ebb and flow. Practicing active listening, validating emotions, and avoiding the over application of positive affirmations, will go a long way towards reversing the trend towards toxic positivity. We should remember that genuine support understands, that the human experience carries boundless emotions and focusing only on positivity could isolate those that most need support.