Toxic Positivity: How Shallow Optimism Can Cause Deep Harm

Discovering the practical power of positive thinking was a major turning point in my life. I’ve always been something of an optimist, but it was only a few years ago that I started to understand the legitimate, tangible benefits of positivity. It filled me with so much excitement, and I wanted to share this newfound superpower with everyone I knew. But in my enthusiasm, I also started to wade into the murky waters of something I later came to know as “toxic positivity.”

There are two sides to every coin, and even something as incredibly beneficial as positive thinking can be problematic if we don’t engage it in a thoughtful way.

Make no mistake, optimism is still one of the most absurdly powerful tools you can use to improve your life. I don’t expect you’ll ever hear me say otherwise. But, like many tools, it is crucial that we understand all sides of it. That way, we can use it to its greatest effect without being unhelpful (or worse, harmful) to ourselves or others.

If you are ready to start being a more positive person throughout your life without being unproductive or toxic, read on.

Is Too Much Positivity a Bad Thing?

It sounds kind of weird at first, doesn’t it? Toxic positivity. It seems almost silly, like “vegetable overdose,” “excessive gratitude,” or “puppy infestation.” How can there be too much of such a naturally great thing?

With toxic positivity, it’s really less a matter of “too much,” and more about how you apply positivity.

Healthy Positivity is an invaluable tool for lifting up ourselves and others, and inspiring us to realize greater outcomes in our lives, even while dealing with difficult experiences.

Toxic Positivity is when we take things a step too far and use optimism to ignore, cover up, or invalidate negative feelings and experiences.

Here’s why that’s emotionally toxic.

Negative feelings, as you can likely deduce from the name (or from personal experience), are usually not fun. But that doesn’t mean they are pointless. Negative feelings are critical to our growth and we actually need them in order to live a happy life. Ignoring or invalidating them with toxic positivity prevents us from processing those feelings, and leaves them to fester.

It’s uncomfortable but necessary that we sometimes feel things like guilt, anger, grief, worry, and shame. These are important mental tools. They protect us from serious harm, and motivate us to make beneficial changes in our lives.

Array of small toys with faces representing positive and negative emotions on a pink background

So, do we need to watch out for being “too positive?” 

Not really, no. Positivity only becomes harmful when we try to use it to supersede the normal emotional process. Provided that you’re making enough room to experience and resolve negative moments in a healthy way, you never have to worry about being too chipper, or too upbeat!

Identifying Toxic Positivity

So what does toxic positivity look like in practice?

Truthfully, it can be a little tricky to spot the difference between constructive optimism, and an unhelpful shade of positivity.

The most important distinction is whether you’re using a positive attitude to navigate a negative situation, or in an attempt to replace one. For example, consider these two possible responses to someone telling you about the terrible day they’ve had:

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.”

B: “Man, that sounds like it really 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?”

In both cases, the speaker wants to be supportive. And in both cases, they’re engaging an optimistic attitude to try and help the other person feel better. But in the first case, the speaker is using positivity as a blunt instrument to override the other person’s feelings, and replace them with positive ones. Scenario A is an example of toxic positivity.

In the latter scenario, the speaker acknowledges the reality of 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 further express themselves. In Scenario B, the speaker offers healthy, non-toxic positivity as well as sympathy.

Woman comforting an upset friend with sympathy rather than toxic positivity

Toxic Positivity and Gaslighting

In looking at toxic positivity, it’s important to highlight another mental health term that has been on many people’s minds lately: gaslighting.

Gaslighting, if you’re not familiar, is the act of manipulating and/or lying to someone to the point of forcing them to question their own understanding of reality.

This is similar to toxic positivity in that it invalidates the other person’s feelings. In both cases, you hear someone’s experience, and rather than truly listening and acknowledging it, you submit to them a version of reality that you prefer. Both are likely to leave someone feeling unheard, like their concerns are being brushed off.

The big difference between the two is that when you are being positive (even in an unhelpful way), the intent is usually to help. You see someone you care about struggling, and you want to help their pain go away. In an attempt to be supportive, you end up inadvertently trivializing what they’re going through. Gaslighting, on the other hand, is a more overtly selfish behavior. People who engage in gaslighting usually intend to invalidate another’s experience, in order to supplant it with one that better suits themselves.

While toxic positivity is generally less malicious in intent than gaslighting, it can have a similar impact. Making someone feel ignored, or like their experience or emotions are in some way “incorrect,” can cause frustration at the very least, and even lead to serious resentment. This is especially true when it comes to close friends and loved ones.

If you see someone you care about struggling and want to offer support, that’s great. That’s what I love about you. Let’s just be careful to do it the right way. Speaking of which, woah here comes another section!

How to Offer Support Without Toxic Positivity

Alright. We know why it happens and what it looks like, but we still need to figure out how to deal with toxic positivity. How do you spot it in yourself, and adopt a healthier alternative? How do you comfort someone without toxic positivity?

Look no further. I mean, okay, maybe a little further, because it’s in this next section. 

Here are a few techniques you can use to spot and prevent unhelpful optimism, as well as what you can say instead of creating toxic positivity.

Sympathy, not Solutions

The first and most important thing for reducing toxic positivity is to lead with sympathy.

When someone is going through something tough, be very careful with phrases like “cheer up,” “it’s not so bad,” or “look on the bright side.”

While expressions like these may seem uplifting, the fact is that they often ignore the real issue at hand. It’s like looking for a shortcut to a solution, rather than helping someone through the underlying problem. 

You may believe you’re saying “Here’s a way to feel better!” but all they’re hearing is, “No, I don’t think you’re actually having a bad day at all.”

When someone comes to you and is having a hard time, try to be support-oriented, rather than solution-oriented. Instead of jumping to answers and quick fixes (as obvious as they may seem to be), start by listening deeply and acknowledging earnestly. In so doing, you will help them to feel heard, appreciated, and validated. As often as not, this is all we’re really looking for. And 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.

Make Room for Negativity

Man comforting his friend with hand on shoulder to be supportive

I have, up until quite recently, drastically underestimated the value of the phrase “that sucks,” as a supportive listener.

Taking 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.

Try on that other person’s perspective for a second. Be the speaker wanting a listener. You’ve just had a shit day, and you feel like shit, and you go to a friend looking for support. Do you want your friend to tell you that your bad day wasn’t that bad at all? That the way you’re feeling right now is unjustified? Or would that make you feel even worse?

Negative feelings after a hard experience, regardless of the material factors, are very real. We cannot simply shut them off. Trying to do so can easily backfire.

After surviving your shit day, you probably want that friend (at least initially) to confirm that you’re not crazy and that this was, in fact, a shit day. And then go from there. It’s not that anyone wants to dive into a doom spiral about how this is just one in a long pattern of shit days and all the days to come will be nothing but shit. But today was one, and there needs to be room for that to be the case.

A positive outlook almost always has a place somewhere in the conversation, but that is often alongside the presence of negatives. And never flat-out erasing them.

Negativity needs to be validated, explored, and processed, not overridden. 

Master Your Own 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 talked about here to your conversations with yourself.

Painful feelings are as inevitable as they are essential to a healthy life. Watch out for the trap of trying to short-circuit your own bad moods with toxic positivity. Avoid telling yourself things like, “get over it,” “it’s not that big of a deal,” or “just move on.” If you’re hurting, no matter the reason, then that is real and that’s what matters.

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

Optimism is one of the best tools you can use in your own self-talk to feel happier, move your life forward, and effect amazing outcomes. But that doesn’t mean that you can use it to simply blast away your bad feelings. Work with them, feel them, make the changes you need to make, and then use positivity to lift yourself up. It’s not a process you can skip over.

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

Dealing with Toxic Positivity from Others

Woman feeling overwhelmed by toxic positivity from her friends and family

One final point here. Now that you have a grasp on what toxic positivity is, and how to avoid spreading it, you will likely be more attuned to noticing it coming from others. Particularly when you find yourself on the receiving end.

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

Once you’ve identified toxic positivity coming your way, it’s usually pretty simple to address. Remember, this is someone who wants to help you, they’re just not quite hitting the mark.

It’s always okay to advocate for your emotional needs, particularly with close loved ones. If you find you are being glossed over by someone else’s positivity, don’t be afraid to let them know, clearly but gently, that that isn’t what you’re looking for. Try phrases like: 

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

If it isn’t the right moment for a bit of relationship-correction, that’s okay too. Just remember that someone else’s toxic positivity is never evidence that your emotional state is invalid. Though it may be an indicator that this is not the right environment for you to process in. You will always be able to work through what you need to with someone else, or on your own in another setting. 

toxic positivity title pin

What has your experience with toxic positivity been? How do you embrace optimism without creating toxicity? Let us know below!

7 Comments

  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)!

    January 5, 2021
    Reply
    • Sam said:

      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.

      January 8, 2021
      Reply
  2. Diana Duong said:

    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!

    January 5, 2021
    Reply
    • Sam said:

      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!

      January 8, 2021
      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!

    February 28, 2021
    Reply
    • Sam said:

      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!

      March 1, 2021
      Reply

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