Toxic Positivity: How Shallow Optimism Can Cause Deep Harm

Positive thinking is one of the most bafflingly powerful forces in the known universe. A healthy mix of empirical evidence and anecdotal experience consistently support the idea that a positive attitude can positively impact everything from happiness and mental health to relationships, professional success, and long-term personal goals. But even great things can come with downsides, and with optimism, one of the biggest is toxic positivity.

Even something as genuinely wonderful as a positive attitude can be problematic for those who don’t engage with it thoughtfully. Toxic positivity results when well-meaning attempts at optimism and encouragement land in a way that is ultimately more harmful than constructive. 

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

What Is Toxic Positivity?

Positive thinking is a powerful tool that can significantly improve your life and the lives of those around you. But under the wrong circumstances, it can backfire. Toxic positivity can take many forms, but in most cases, it is an attempt at optimism that has the unintended effect of making people feel worse. 

The phrase “toxic positivity” can come across as a bit of an oxymoron — It seems almost silly, like “vegetable overdose,” “excessive gratitude,” or “puppy infestation.” 

How can there be too much of a naturally great thing?

Toxic positivity is less a matter of “too much” optimism 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.

The Role of Negativity in Healthy Optimism

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 — better than okay, even. Stepping through challenging experiences is integral to a happy, healthy life. Hard times help us grow and make the sweet times even sweeter.

It is a common misunderstanding that being an optimistic person means you need to ignore these moments, or pretend every situation is good no matter what. But that’s not how it works.

Optimists often choose to see the bright side of things, but that doesn’t mean they ignore when difficult or unfortunate things happen. 

Toxic positivity occurs when you take a dogmatic, black-and-white approach to focus on the positive at the expense of all else. This approach can invalidate emotions, leave problems to fester, and ultimately make people feel worse than before.

Healthy, realistic optimism means accepting the circumstances of your life as they are and using a positive attitude to navigate through them. It only becomes toxic when you use positivity as a blunt instrument to force yourself or someone else to feel better.

Identifying Toxic Positivity

The main distinction between toxic positivity and healthy optimism is whether positivity is helping to navigate a challenging situation or attempting to replace one.

For example, consider these two possible responses to someone telling you about a 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 empathy and optimism in a more nuanced approach.

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 on its own. 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 also have the opposite effect. It can convey 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

There is some overlap between toxic positivity and another mental health term that has been the subject of much discussion lately: gaslighting.

If you’re unfamiliar, 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 both can invalidate 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 well-being.

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.

On the other hand, gaslighting is more overtly selfish, potentially abusive behavior. People who engage in gaslighting are likelier to do it to suit themselves, regardless of the impact on others.

While these two behaviors come from different places, their effect is often similar. Either can make a person doubt themselves and feel that their experience is invalid. Both can cause frustration and ultimately erode relationships. Therefore, it is always a good idea to make space for your loved ones’ emotions, help them feel seen, and work to operate from a shared reality.

4 Tips for Reducing and Avoiding Toxic Positivity

While the power of positive thinking is something everyone 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” and “no bad days” approach is not the way.

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

1. Sympathy, not Solutions

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).

You can keep a positive mental attitude while also acknowledging that someone else had a lousy day. Often, an unhappy person needs someone to hear them, ask questions, and validate their situation. Telling them just to be positive is unlikely to help as much as acknowledgment and honesty.

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

2. Make Room for Negativity

Most people underestimate the value of the phrase “that sucks” as a supportive listener. Confirming for a friend that something that felt sucky to them was indeed 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

It doesn’t have to be a deep dive into a negative attitude about all the terrible days ahead. But today was one of them. Making room for that reality allows a person to process, heal, and move forward.

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

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. 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 harm your mental and physical health, but so can positive self-talk if it comes across as toxic.

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 you will quickly find radiating out to your other relationships. 

4. Protect Yourself Against 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 probably someone who wants to help you have a positive outlook; they’re just going about it inelegantly.

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 tell them 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. However, if right now is not that time for you, don’t be afraid to let others know you are still processing. Your negative emotions are just as valid as positive ones.

Moving From Toxic Positivity to Healthy Optimism

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

Helping others to feel happier 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.

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Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder 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 Can Cause 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)!

    • 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.

  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!

    • 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!

  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!

    • 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!


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