Toxic Positivity: How Shallow Optimism Causes Deep Harm

What comes to mind when you think of optimism or positive thinking? Most likely, your mind doesn’t leap toward terms like toxicity, gaslighting, or invalidation. That’s probably for the best, but there is an overlap between these two sets of ideas. It’s called toxic positivity.

As we talk about all the time on Smarter and Harder, positive thinking can be a tremendously powerful force for a happier life. However, there are two sides to every coin. Even something as genuinely wonderful as positive thinking can also be problematic if we don’t engage it thoughtfully.

Toxic positivity happens when (typically well-meaning) attempts at optimism and encouragement land in a way that is ultimately harmful rather than constructive. 

Let’s take a deeper look at how toxic positivity works and where it comes from, and then explore some ways that you can start protecting yourself and others from it.

Is Too Much Positivity a Bad Thing?

It sounds kind of weird at first. “Toxic positivity” — It seems almost silly, like “vegetable overdose,” “excessive gratitude,” or “puppy infestation.” How can there be too much of a naturally great thing?

With toxic positivity, it’s less a matter of “too much” and more about how thinking positively comes into play.

You can stay positive all day without necessarily wading into toxicity. What matters is how you manage when you encounter adverse circumstances or emotions.

Allowing Negativity to Exist

Negative feelings are usually not fun. That’s probably how they got that name, although there’s no way to know for sure. At the same time, negative feelings are bound to happen. 

No matter how optimistic and fortunate you may be, there will always be trials and difficulties for you to face. That’s okay – more than okay. It’s an integral part of a happy, healthy life. Hard times help us grow and make the sweet times even sweeter.

When unpleasant circumstances do occur, there are many ways that being positive can help. For instance, you can:

  • Give yourself positive affirmations — “this is temporary,” “tomorrow will be a better day,” etc.
  • Practice acknowledging and letting go of your negative emotions
  • Focus on the active steps and mindset shifts you are making to improve the situation

The common thread here is that healthy positivity in a negative circumstance requires acknowledging the negativity.  

Optimism only becomes harmful when we try to use positive thoughts to supersede the normal emotional process. Toxic positivity happens when you try to force yourself (or someone else) to ignore negative thoughts and be happy despite stressful emotions.

Identifying Toxic Positivity

Let’s see what toxic positivity looks like in practice. As we saw above, the main thing to look out for is whether positivity is helping to navigate a difficult situation or attempting to replace one.

For example, consider these two possible responses to someone telling you about the terrible day they’ve had:

Option A: “Hey, it’s not so bad. It’s just one day. And it’s over now, so cheer up! Let’s watch a movie to take your mind off it.”

Option B: “Man, that sounds like it sucked; I’m sorry. I can’t believe your boss treated you like that. Hopefully, tomorrow will go better. Is there anything I can do for you right now to help?”

Both options come from an instinct to be supportive. But option B is an example of being a great listener and acknowledging reality. Option A attempts to use positivity as a blunt instrument, a shortcut back to good times. Option A is an example of toxic positivity.

In option B, the speaker acknowledges the other person’s pain. They extend sympathy for the situation. And only then do they offer (rather than try to enforce) optimism as a way forward while still giving the other person space to express themselves further. Option B exhibits non-toxic, realistic optimism as well as sympathy.

Common Toxic Positivity Phrases

You can often identify toxic positivity by specific common phrases. Note that none of these phrases is necessarily problematic or unkind. In some contexts, though, these expressions can come off as dismissive or unhelpful to someone coping with something. 

It’s wise to be cautious when using any of the following phrases and to pay attention to when others use them as well:

  • “Would you just cheer up?”
  • “Look on the bright side….”
  • “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
  • “Try to see the glass as half-full.”
  • “Don’t be so pessimistic.”
  • “Focus on the silver lining!”

While you may use a phrase like this to make another person feel good, it can have the opposite effect. It can send the message that their hurt feelings are invalid and not worth discussing.

Sometimes accepting the situation and moving on isn’t what we need. Sometimes when life gives you lemons, making lemonade isn’t the answer.

Toxic Positivity and Gaslighting

You may look at toxic positivity and think it sounds very similar to another mental health term that has been on many people’s minds lately: gaslighting.

If you’re not familiar, gaslighting is manipulating or lying to someone to the point of forcing them to question their understanding of reality.

Gaslighting is similar to toxic positivity in that it invalidates a person’s feelings. Both can have the effect of making someone doubt themselves by suggesting an alternate view of reality. Both can potentially be harmful to someone’s self-esteem and mental wellbeing.

Comparing the differences between toxic positivity and gaslighting.

The big difference between the two is intent.

Toxic positivity is generally an attempt at staying positive that has gone awry. Toxically positive people usually mean to offer kindness, even if they miss the mark.

Gaslighting, on the other hand, is more overtly selfish behavior. People who engage in gaslighting are more likely doing it to suit their own ends, regardless of the impact on others.

While these two behaviors come from different causes, their effect is quite similar. Either one can make a person doubt themselves and feel that their experience is somehow invalid. Both can cause frustration and ultimately erode relationships.

4 Tips for Reducing and Avoiding Toxic Positivity

While the power of positive thinking is something that every person alive should take advantage of, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Unfortunately, it’s only mostly sunshine and rainbows.

A positive attitude can do many beautiful things for you and the people around you, but a “good vibes only,” “no bad days” approach to it is not the way.

Below are a few tips and techniques to share positive energy with the people around you in a healthy, sustainable way.

1. Sympathy, not Solutions

The first and most important way to reduce toxic positivity is to lead with sympathy.

When someone comes to you and is having a hard time, try to listen and be support-oriented rather than solution-oriented. Try to understand what this person wants from you at that moment (hint: it’s usually not telling them what they should do next).

It’s possible for you to keep a positive mental attitude while also acknowledging that someone else had a lousy day. A great deal of the time, an unhappy person needs someone to hear them, ask questions, and validate their situation. Telling them to just be positive is unlikely to help as much as acknowledgement and honesty.

Perhaps ironically, this type of support can help us get back to a positive place much quicker and more effectively than trying to jump to a quick fix.

2. Make Room for Negativity

Until recently, I have drastically underestimated the value of the phrase “that sucks” as a supportive listener. The simple initial step of confirming for your friend that something that felt sucky to them was, in fact, sucky can make all the difference.

Negative feelings after a challenging experience are very real. We cannot simply shut them off and focus on the positive. Trying to do so can easily backfire.

After surviving a terrible day, it’s nice to have someone confirm that you’re not crazy and that this was, in fact, a terrible day. To acknowledge that isn’t pessimism. It’s realistic optimism

This doesn’t have to be a deep dive into a negative attitude about all the terrible days ahead. But today was one of them, and there needs to be room for that to be the case.

A positive outlook almost always has a place somewhere in the conversation, even alongside negatives. But never flat-out erasing them.

Negativity like this needs to be validated, explored, and processed, not skipped. 

3. Master Your Self-Talk

Toxic positivity is not an exclusively A-to-B transaction. It’s something you can do to yourself, too. And most of us do.

Just as you would with others in your life, it’s crucial to support yourself in a healthy way, too. That means applying everything we’ve discussed here to your conversations with yourself.

You’re allowed to feel hurt, mad, or just plain sour.

Negative self-talk can be harmful to your mental and physical health, but so can positive self-talk if it comes across in a toxic way.

Optimism can help you feel more positive about your life, be grateful for the things you have, and surround yourself with things that help you to be happy. But that doesn’t mean it can simply blast away your bad feelings. A healthy, positive life includes both.

Like with many other mental health matters, this form of healthy self-love builds a solid foundation that you will quickly find radiating out to your other relationships. 

4. On the Receiving End of Toxic Positivity

While it’s rarely your sole responsibility to rehabilitate the emotionally harmful behaviors of others, it is your responsibility to protect yourself from the outcome of those behaviors.

When you identify toxic positivity coming your way, it’s usually pretty simple to address. Remember, this is someone who wants to help you have a positive outlook; they’re just going about it the wrong way..

It’s always okay to express when something impacts you negatively, particularly with close loved ones. If you find someone else’s positivity is glossing over you, don’t be afraid to let them know, clearly but gently, that that isn’t what you need right now. Try phrases like: 

  • “Thank you, but I don’t think cheering up is what I need.”
  • “I will feel better later, but I need time to process this first.”
  • “It would help me just to feel heard for now.” 

There is a time and a place to think positive thoughts and maintain a positive attitude. If right now is not that time for you, don’t be afraid to let others know that you are still processing. Your negative thinking right now is just as valid as your positive emotions are.

Final Thoughts

An optimist is a great thing to be, but there’s more to being happy than forcing yourself to be positive and keep smiling at all times. You can be a positive person and still make room for things that make you feel bad. This is an essential process for your overall well-being.

Helping others to think positively starts with having a good attitude yourself, even if a positive mindset isn’t what you expect it to be. Steer away from toxic positivity by ensuring that you give yourself (and others) room to feel whatever you need to feel, and only then relying on positive thought for the road ahead.

Avatar for Sam

Hey, I’m Sam. I created this blog to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

7 thoughts on “Toxic Positivity: How Shallow Optimism Causes Deep Harm”

  1. What a fantastic post Sam! I love the way you have with words – “puppy infestation” and “using positivity as a blunt instrument”, you crack me up! I love it, learning and laughing at the same time.

    That aside, this is such an important topic. I used to be quite the pessimist 10 or so years ago. Then that all changed for me and I feel like much more of an optimist now. Somewhere in the middle of that transition I would really beat myself up about negative feelings. I think I was having toxic positivity towards myself. Eventually I realized that it was okay to feel bad sometimes as long as I didn’t stay stuck there.

    Recently, I read a post from Mark Manson who mentioned “emotional range” which was a really cool and new concept to me. One that’s really important to emotional intelligence. Much of it is like you said – negative feelings actually have a purpose and it’s harmful for us to be emotionally monotone even if it is positivity 24/7/365. With positive psychology becoming so mainstream I think it’s important more people know about and understand toxic positivity. Thanks for spreading the knowledge (and the laughs)!

    Reply
    • Thanks Clarissa! I’m a huge proponent of big, positive thinking, and I thought it was important to explore another side of it. It’s easy to slip into a certain extreme when you discover an idea that seems to help you, and as you say, allowing yourself to explore a wide emotional range is an important, healthy thing.

      Reply
  2. Love this post!

    Thanks for helping clarify the difference between healthy optimism vs. Toxic positivity. It’s very easy to mix these two up.

    I used to minimize my own experiences a lot in the past until I learned about toxic positivity and how it was unhealthy. I’m still learning more about it and try to be careful not to minimize my own and others with toxic positivity. Definitely learning and continuing to grow!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Diana! Your experience ties to one of the main points I really wanted to underscore here, and that is that the conversation you have with yourself is every bit as important as the conversations you have with others. I think a lot of people don’t even notice how they can be unhelpful to themselves with their self-talk. Glad to hear that you’ve been learning to treat yourself better!

      Reply
  3. Exactly! I wrote a post called “Turning Toxic Positivity Into Actionable Empathy” as a result of being on the end of some toxicity when dealing with something really difficult. It was so damaging and it made everything harder to even talk about. Thanks for sharing this — very informative!

    Reply
    • I’m sorry you went through that. It really can cause difficulty, particularly to those on the receiving end. And then of course, it’s difficult to talk about because you feel like a jerk when the other person is “just being positive.” I hope you’ve been able to make some progress with it!

      Reply

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