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There’s nothing wrong with looking on the bright side and trying to remain positive when times get tough—but there comes a point where so-called positive thinking can actually become toxic. Whether you’re exhibiting toxic positivity toward yourself or another person, here’s why it’s a problem and how you can avoid it.
What is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity means holding a perpetually positive outlook to the point that one denies their own feelings and emotions or the feelings and emotions of others. “It’s a belief that no matter how painful a situation is or how difficult, an individual should maintain positivity and change their outlook to be happy or grateful,” licensed psychotherapist Babita Spinelli, L.P., J.D., tells mbg.
In the past year, the phenomenon of toxic positivity has received more and more attention. Some dealt with the pandemic by forcing themselves into a positive mindset, while others were quick to call out the invalidating and borderline gaslighting nature of toxic positivity.
According to licensed therapist Jody Kemmerer, LCSW, toxic positivity stems from wishing we were feeling something we aren’t. We aren’t comfortable with those tough feelings, “so we admonish ourselves to feel differently,” she previously explained to mbg. But if we do this all the time to avoid or deny our genuine experiences, she says, “we run the risk of invalidating our feelings.”
- Feeling guilty for your emotions. If you’re dealing with toxic positivity, you may notice a sense of guilt whenever “negative” emotions arise, or as Kemmerer describes it, judging yourself for what you’re experiencing.
- Feigning gratitude. One telltale sign of toxic positivity is to focus on gratitude as a way to bypass your emotions. That’s not to say gratitude is a bad thing, but it can be when you’re using it to invalidate yourself. As Spinelli notes, we can do this to others, too. For example, a friend or family member dictating that you should be grateful or count your blessings during the pandemic when you felt fear, she says, is toxic positivity.
- Comparing. Just because someone else is seemingly handling a tough time “better” than you, that’s no reason to start comparing. As Spinelli explains, in the world of social media, it’s easy to feel like everyone else is more positive than you and that you should be more positive too. But looks are deceiving, and everyone handles things in their own way. Avoid comparing yourself to others, and vice versa, others to you.
- Dismissing difficult emotions. When difficult emotions arise, you could feel guilty about them, as aforementioned, or completely push them down, insisting you must stay positive. People can also do this to you when they say things like “Just look on the bright side,” or “At least…” to avoid truly holding space for you.
- “Everything happens for a reason.” Even if you truly believe everything does happen for a reason, it’s still important to feel and process your emotions in the moment rather than rationalizing them away or over-spiritualizing them. This isn’t unlike spiritual gaslighting, and it’s just another way to avoid the pain you (or someone else) is feeling.
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Whether self-inflicted or from friends and family, toxic positivity can have a negative impact on one’s mental health in a lot of ways. For starters, Spinelli explains, it invalidates a person’s subjective experience, which is why it’s similar to gaslighting.
It’s OK to feel sad, angry, hurt, disappointed, or any other more difficult emotion. The key, Spinelli notes, is to give yourself grace through compassion. “Toxic positivity doesn’t make room for being self-compassionate or empathic,” she says, adding it “creates obstacles to process traumas or feelings appropriately and effectively.”
And not only does it not allow us to process our own emotions, but according to Spinelli, it can also create feelings of self-judgment, heightening the inner critic and affecting self-esteem.
How to respond to toxic positivity.
If you’re finding yourself exhibiting toxic positivity, Spinelli says the best thing you can do for yourself is to simply accept your feelings without judging them. “You have a right to your emotions,” she emphasizes. And on top of that, she adds, “Be mindful of social media messages that may elicit comparisons and create a version of how you are ‘supposed’ to feel.”
Noticing when toxic positivity is creeping in can also require some mindfulness on your part, whether you’re being that way toward yourself or others. When you find yourself avoiding or deflecting tough emotions, as Spinelli says, try to be present for them.
And if you’re dealing with a friend or family member pushing toxic positivity when you’re feeling down, it’s the same idea—and it’s important to stand firm in your truth. Only you know exactly how you’re feeling, and someone telling you to “just keep your chin up” isn’t always productive or helpful. Explaining that you want to feel the tough emotions before looking on the bright side, or want to be more OK with processing and feeling them, should get the message across.
Avoiding it in the future.
Again, as Spinelli explains, accepting your feelings (and the feelings of others) without judgment is what getting over toxic positivity is all about. And while it may not come easy at first, over time, those difficult emotions will feel less difficult.
“In my work as a psychotherapist, I’ve noticed that gratitude actually comes after a process of surrendering to our painful emotions, not after willing in something positive,” Kimmerer notes.
When it comes to talking with other people, therapist and author of How To Be Alone Megan Bruneau, M.A., previously told mbg to avoid saying things like “Be positive!” or “You have so much to be grateful for!” “This usually leads to them feeling shamed and misunderstood,” she adds.
At the end of the day, it’s really all about balance. Balance between positivity and being honest with yourself; gratitude and grief; and finding the silver lining without rushing the healing necessary when we’re hurting. Being able to stay positive in times of trouble is great and can help with resilience, but the truth is, processing and integrating tough emotions builds resilience, too.