Here's What Toxic Positivity Is Really About—And How You Can Avoid It

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You know the feeling: You’re going through a tough time, venting to a friend, and they tell you to just stay positive. Surprisingly, this does shift your perspective—you’re now feeling more frustrated than before. Or maybe you’re perusing Etsy and come across a shelf of Good Vibes Only mugs, and your gut reaction is cringe. What about these seemingly innocuous and well-intentioned phrases are so grating? Are you being needlessly negative, stubborn, or no fun? Nope, you’re probably just responding to toxic positivity culture.

What Is Toxic Positivity?

Positivity in itself is a good thing—that’s, uh, its literal definition. Toxic positivity is a different beast from happiness, optimism, or resilience in that it’s an insistence on staying positive no matter what’s actually happening, and a rejection of all feelings, people, and circumstances that don’t ascribe to that rigid code. "Toxic positivity is the belief that we must always remain positive even if the situation is a very difficult one,” says Joanna Filidor, LMFT. While a friend occasionally telling you to look on the bright side isn’t a problem, and is even occasionally sound advice, when chin-up culture gets out of hand or is applied to genuinely troubling situations, “it can be very invalidating to the person going through adversity,” Filidor notes. In short, toxic positivity is regular positivity’s overbearing (and, frankly, more annoying) cousin.

As conversations around wellness, mental health, and emotional growth have become normalized over the past few years, toxic positivity has insidiously slipped into a lot of the rhetoric around happiness and how we face challenges. On some level, this makes sense; who, exactly, is advocating for more negativity?

Your friend may genuinely think they are helping—"Often, toxic positivity is a result of not knowing what to say to someone who is struggling,” notes Filidor—but in reality, they are shutting down a conversation that carries high emotional stakes for you. Turning positivity into a lifestyle denies and minimizes a whole spectrum of human experience. Furthermore, stigmatizing normal human emotions like sadness, anger, and fear does little to actually fix them.

"When someone tries to be positive but their emotions aren’t changing, they might feel ashamed that they are incapable of changing their perspective, or might feel like there is something inherently wrong with them for not being able to do it," says Filidor. Not only do we internalize these feelings, she adds, but they can also affect how we interact with others. An oppressively positive mindset, notes Filidor, "can also make people feel more alone and less likely to reach out for support... as the last thing we want to hear when we are struggling is to 'just be positive.'" Toxic positivity is not only ineffective for cultivating happiness; it's an unrealistic goal, and can be actively harmful to our mental health. "Good vibes only" culture benefits no one (except maybe the person trying to sell you that mug).

Turning positivity into a lifestyle denies and minimizes a whole spectrum of human experience.

How to Avoid and Identify Toxic Positivity

So, how do you identify and avoid toxic positivity? The first step is recognizing what it isn’t. When people grasp at toxic positivity, they’re most likely striving for optimism or resilience. “Optimism is about acknowledging that things are hard but that they can get better, and resilience is the way by which we can bounce back from adversity or challenging times,” says Filidor. “Therefore, toxic positivity and resilience cannot go hand in hand as to be resilient, one needs to acknowledge that there is adversity in the first place.” Translation: it may feel counterintuitive (and deeply uncomfortable), but acknowledging the problem is actually the first step toward healing.

The best way to steer clear of toxic positivity, then, is to cultivate and strengthen your resilience. Once again, Filidor recommends working on coping with, rather than avoiding or invalidating, stressful situations. “Build a support system,” she says “and make space for self-reflection and self-care.” Taking steps to create care and support in your life, and knowing which friends you can lean on in a meaningful way, creates a solid foundation for times when you’re too distressed or overwhelmed to lay out a detailed plan of action. It’s much easier to process pain when you know exactly who you can rely on, or which self-care ritual lowers your stress levels every time. Filidor also recommends reframing difficult situations. “It is different from toxic positivity,” she notes –  you aren’t denying your emotions or your perception, just trying to see your situation from all sides. Personally, when I’m feeling miserable, it helps to remember the last time I felt that way I got out of that funk, so I know that this one has to end sometime too.

Another tip? Staying mindful of your social media consumption. Filidor explains, “Social media platforms like Instagram can be filled with lots of toxic positivity. Posts or statements like ‘good vibes only,’ ‘look on the bright side,’ or ‘everything happens for a reason’ are common examples of this.” So much has already been said on the relationship between social media and shame—who amongst us hasn’t scrolled through an "aspirational" interior design account, only to feel terrible about our own apartments? Add in the rise of the not-actually-from-a-therapist infographic, and suddenly your feelings leave as much to be desired as your living space.

The Bottom Line

To battle positivity pressure, Filidor says to cull (or mute) your feed so you’re less exposed to toxic messaging. “If you notice that anyone you follow tends to use these, it might be good to take a look at their feed and see if it is hurting more than helping your mental health." She notes that this can actually be a learning experience: “It is also good to reflect on your own comfort level with uncomfortable emotions,” she adds. “Learn that it is okay to make mistakes."

Article Sources
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  1. Bastian B, Kuppens P, Hornsey MJ, Park J, Koval P, Uchida Y. Feeling Bad About Being Sad: The Role of Social Expectancies in Amplifying Negative MoodEmotion. 2012;12(1):69-80. doi:10.1037/a0024755

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