What Is Toxic Positivity? Here's Why It's Not Always Healthy to Look on the Bright Side
Here's something we can probably all agree on: Being told to "calm down" is never effective. Instead of inspiring an instant wave of relaxation, those pesky little words often have the opposite effect of calming someone down, leading to feelings of frustration, invalidation, and even more anxiety. Similarly, telling someone who's struggling emotionally to just "be happy" or "look on the bright side," while well intentioned, can actually do more harm than good. This tendency to rush to the positive is called "toxic positivity," which Dr. Leela Magavi—board-certified adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist—explains as "individuals' need to avoid or divert attention from painful thoughts and memories."
Amidst a global pandemic, systemic racism, environmental devastation, and more this year, it's almost certain that painful thoughts have been in abundance with people across the world—and toxic positivity has become a common response to the daily upset of the news. But with coronavirus (COVID-19)-related deaths nearing 200,000 and wildfires sweeping across the West Coast, it's clear that the world isn't okay right now, so why are we pretending to be? Dr. Magavi explains that the tendency toward toxic positivity often comes from a discomfort with having unpleasant or negative emotions (which is often culturally and societally ingrained) and especially comes out in those who have solution-oriented or "how do we fix it now?" personalities. "When it comes to emotions, though," she says, "emotions ebb and flow. It doesn't work so quickly that you can just tell somebody to feel better or to be positive and they'll feel better right away."
Dr. Magavi further emphasizes why things just aren't that simple, explaining, "When the listener is then telling you, essentially, [to] stop speaking, just be happy, or turn on that switch, that ability to speak openly on a safe platform is eradicated and that hyperactivity and portion of the brain that really needs to calm down is not able to."
So while being positive all the time may sound like a good thing, we can't always just throw on a "Good Vibes Only" T-shirt or turn on Bob Marley's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" and whistle our troubles away—because sometimes unhappy emotions are a necessary part of processing pain. Below, read more on toxic positivity, why it can be so harmful to one's mental health, and alternative coping methods experts recommend for dealing with difficult emotions.
What are some examples of toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity can be perpetuated in the things we say and the ways we act toward both other people and ourselves, so it's important to acknowledge the different ways that this can manifest. Some examples of toxic positivity, as shared by The Psychology Group and board-certified psychiatrist Dr. Margaret Seide, include:
- Telling someone to just "cheer up," "be happy," or "look at the bright side."
- Rushing the emotional process by saying things like "It'll get better."
- Dismissing present issues by saying, "But you have so much to be thankful for."
- Feeling guilt or shame for feeling sad because someone else "has it worse."
- Trying to just "get over it" by ignoring or dismissing negative emotions.
- Promoting a "good vibes only" approach to dealing with various problems.
- Ignoring or brushing aside things that are bothering you.
- Tone-policing others on how they speak on issues or deal with it personally or in the world.
With so much police brutality and racial violence in the news in recent months, toxic positivity has also come up in many conversations surrounding racism. In addition to tone policing, Dr. Seide identifies toxic positivity in the context of racism as different versions of performative activism or "positivity without any action behind it." This can look like companies or brands making statements in support of Black Lives Matter without following through with meaningful changes or individuals trying to make their allegiance to anti-racism work clear in order to "save face."
Why is toxic positivity harmful?
It perpetuates the idea of a hierarchy of problems. "In our culture, there's this thought that you can measure the magnitude of a problem and put a size—like small, medium, or large—on it," Dr. Seide says. Certain forms of toxic positivity promote this hierarchy as a way to help someone "get perspective" on their issues, but this is a dismissive response. "It minimizes and invalidates a person's experience when they feel like they're sizing up their problem in comparison to the person next to them," Dr. Seide explains. "It makes a person feel guilty for experiencing any sort of feelings that are negative."
It further stigmatizes mental illness. Mental illness and mental health struggles have long been regarded as taboo to discuss in mainstream culture. So when toxic positivity is used, it categorizes all "negative" emotions as bad and shameful, rather than promoting them as natural and normal. As Dr. Seide explains, when you force positivity onto someone who is going through a difficult experience, "it just feels like you're rushing their problems away in order to make yourself more comfortable."
It's a bandaid to a deeper problem. While efforts to cheer someone, or yourself, up may work temporarily, the root of the pain won't just go away. When toxic positivity is used to avoid dealing with pain, it's likely that those emotions will just come out unprocessed in the future. A 2011 study from the University of Texas found that bottling up emotions can have negative implications on the body and mind and can end up making people more aggressive. Another study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester in 2013 showed that emotional suppression could increase one's chance of premature death from all causes by more than 30% and their risk of being diagnosed with cancer by 70%.
How can you avoid toxic positivity with yourself or others?
Lean into your feelings. Though no one wants to hear it, one of the best ways to deal with sadness, depression, anxiety, trauma, or any other emotion is to actually deal with it. Instead of pushing your or other peoples' emotions to the side, both Dr. Seide and Dr. Magavi recommend journaling or going to therapy to help process them. In the context of toxic positivity, Dr. Seide says therapy is especially helpful because it's a space to talk openly about your pain without worrying about making someone uncomfortable. "There's this acknowledgment that that's what the relationship is for," she explains. "You don't have to be okay. You don't have to make small talk. You can just dive right in and say, 'I had the worst day.'"
Evaluate your own relationship with emotions. Whether you're presently struggling or not, Dr. Magavi recommends that everyone take the time to identify the way they personally respond to different emotions, like sadness, anger, anxiety, etc. "Everyone has a different sensation emotionally but also in their body," she says. "So if individuals are able to [identify their feelings] independently, they can be better when they are helping friends, neighbors, colleagues because they understand that it's not the same for everyone."
To do this, Dr. Magavi suggests thinking of each of your feelings "like a fish going through the lake, just gliding past" you. Then, she recommends naming each emotion with statements like "I'm feeling sad right now," sitting with that emotion, taking deep breaths, and resisting any urges to judge or dismiss those emotions. Next, "you can think about what you need to do to feel better," like take a walk or talk to someone, "but if you don't feel ready to do that then and there, you don't have to."
Become an active listener. If you want to help a loved one who's going through something difficult, resist the urge to be overly positive and instead try to just listen. "Being supportive and being positive don't always have to go together," Dr. Seide says. "Sometimes being supportive means just listening and letting a person express what is going on with them in a safe and nonjudgmental space." Listening to someone and showing that you care gives that person space to feel valued and heard, which, Dr. Magavi says, "is pivotal to helping someone" through a hard time.
Use supportive and validating language. Instead of using positively cloaked phrases that are considered dismissive of any negative emotions, try to respond to a loved one with words that encourage them to speak more about whatever they're feeling so that they have space to feel heard. Dr. Magavi recommends saying and asking things like, "Would you like to speak further about this topic?" "I'm here when you're ready," "Is there anything I can do for you right now?" In these ways, she explains, you're matching the tone of the person who's struggling rather than shifting it for your own comfort. Dr. Magavi also recommends reiterating parts of what someone is telling you and saying things like "that sounds really hard" or "that sounds really painful" to show that you're listening. "That encourages the person to speak more because they feel valued, they feel heard," she explains.
Dr. Seide also encourages people to ask others how they're doing and not accept "fine" for an answer. "If we normalize putting some emphasis and really meaning it when we check in and ask 'how are you doing?' then I think more people would have that safe space to not pretend that they're okay," she says. While it may be easy to believe the world would be a better place if everyone was happy and positive all the time, in actuality, it would probably be better if everyone felt comfortable expressing the full range of human emotions more openly and honestly.