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Toxic Positivity: What It Is and How to Avoid It

01 September 2022

If you’ve ever seen a sign for ‘good vibes only’ or had somebody tell you ‘everything happens for a reason after a traumatising life event, the chances are you’ve experienced toxic positivity.

The phrase toxic positivity is regularly used across social media - but what exactly does it mean, and why is it so harmful? Let’s dive in and find out.

What is Toxic Positivity?

Positive thinking, for the most part, is a good thing. Encouraging people to build resilience, stay optimistic, and look for the good in everyday situations is perfectly acceptable. So what’s the difference between a positive attitude and toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how terrible the circumstances are, people should maintain a positive mindset at all costs.  

Toxic positivity involves rejecting negative emotions and expecting an optimistic outlook from people at all times, no matter what they’re going through. You may have experienced toxic positivity from others, or you may recognise these behaviours in the expectations you set for yourself.

Why is Toxic Positivity Harmful?

Having an optimistic attitude and pointing out the positives of a situation to a friend isn’t harmful. However, when you deny others the chance to express their negative feelings without judgement or shame, this becomes toxic positivity.

Toxic positivity stigmatises negative emotions, mental health issues, and talking about feelings, which can prevent people from getting help when they need it.

Toxic positivity doesn’t take systemic issues into account.

Toxic positivity tends to overlook systemic issues. In many scenarios, people can’t simply use positive thinking to get themselves out of a bad situation. Poor working conditions often cause mental health issues, lack of financial support, or institutional discrimination, and toxic positivity downplays the role of these factors in poor mental health.

Toxic positivity causes feelings of shame.

When somebody is suffering a loss or other difficult life event, it’s crucial that they feel validated in their emotions. Toxic positivity can make people think they’re overreacting and feel shame or guilt for completely natural negative emotions.

Toxic positivity may prevent people from seeking help.

If somebody struggling with a tough time is repeatedly told to ‘just stay positive’ or ‘things could be worse, they may underplay what they’re actually going through. If somebody doubts how much they’re struggling with mental health, they’ll be less likely to seek professional help when needed.

Toxic positivity doesn’t improve situations.

In many stressful or upsetting situations, somebody requires a change of circumstances, professional help, or even financial support. Simply telling somebody to ‘stay positive’ is not only harmful to mental health, but it’s not at all helpful for the situation.

Toxic positivity can cause low self-esteem.

If somebody is repeatedly told to ‘look on the bright side or ‘stay positive’, but they find themselves unable to, this can lead to shame and guilt around having negative emotions. Consistent feelings of shame lead to more negative emotions and more guilt, so somebody can become stuck in a vicious cycle that creates low self-esteem in the long term.

Examples Of Toxic Positivity

So, how can we know the difference between a friend being supportive and toxic positivity so we can avoid the latter? Here are some common examples of poisonous positivity.

● Telling somebody ‘it could be worse, ‘stay positive, or ‘look on the bright side after a difficult life event such as losing a family member or a divorce.

● Telling somebody ‘everything happens for a reason when something terrible happens.

● Berating somebody for ‘being so negative’ when they express sadness or anger at an upsetting situation.

● Claiming to only spend time with unwaveringly positive people by using phrases such as ‘good vibes only.

How To Avoid Toxic Positivity

Maybe you recognise this mindset in somebody you know, or you recognise some of this behaviour in yourself. Either way, the good news is there are ways to tackle this damaging mindset. Here’s how.

● Allow friends and family to express negative emotions without judgement.

● Avoid people who express toxic positivity towards you.

● Unfollow any social media accounts that promote toxic positivity.

● Seek professional help when needed to support mental health.

● Validate the feelings of friends and families when they come to you for help.

● Recognise the societal and systemic issues that impact others, even if they don’t impact you directly.

Final Thoughts

Toxic positivity can be subtle and tricky to notice. Still, if you experience it at the hands of others or your own expectations, it’s important to stop perpetuating this harmful mindset.

Remember that negative emotions are completely natural, and you should feel comfortable seeking professional help when necessary for your mental health.