The Problem of Toxic Positivity

Toxic Positivity © Shutterstock / Fauzi Muda
© Shutterstock / Fauzi Muda

Ever met one of those people who is so relentlessly sunshiny that it makes you a little sick? Chances are it’s making them sick too. Literally.

I once worked with a colleague so relentlessly positive, she would cause unnecessary harm to herself, despite the warnings of friends, in her quest to prove she “could do anything,” just like the motivational posters on her wall told her. The bruises, broken bones and burns she collected jumping off, clambering over and throwing herself headfirst into whatever life-affirming challenge she stumbled across suggested otherwise.  

While I’m a big fan of having a positive outlook on life, I’m not just talking about a glass half full attitude. Her glass was overflowing, though mostly with insincerity and thought-terminating platitudes. Not only was this wreaking havoc on her own life, but her excessive demands for “positive vibes only” saw her delegitimise other people’s real-life problems.  

Gaslighting at its most manipulative, she would demand that her colleagues remain in the same perpetually optimistic state, and pressure them into repressing their emotions instead of working through them as they needed. On one occasion she asked a young colleague who was grieving their father to “put on a happy” face, just days after he passed, because her ‘negativity’ was bringing the team down. Actions like these certainly didn’t create the positive environment she so proselytised. Instead it left an office full of broken and resentful staff. And was she happy herself? No. It was all pretence. 

So, what is toxic positivity? 

Welcome to toxic positivity, a dysfunctional emotional management system that sees negative emotions dismissed or suppressed. Toxic positivity occurs when a person’s obsession with positive thinking sees them attach shallow positive messages to every single experience, both theirs and yours, even those that are profoundly tragic.  

Not only can toxic positivity have a negative impact on others, but also on the very people who place this unrealistically high value on their own happiness. Toxic positivity almost always backfires and, ironically, leads to unhappiness, as the failure to properly process emotions can lead to psychological difficulties including depression and anxiety.  

Social media platforms are full of it. You know, those pastel-hued unrealistic representations of motherhood that are so detached from anything even resembling reality, that leave average mums coping with reality wondering where they went wrong. Then there are the accounts stuffed with vague and mostly meaningless motivational mantras.  And don’t get me started on the innumerable, and frankly insufferable, self-appointed self-help gurus asking people to cough up serious dollars for a crash course in substituting medically backed therapy and practical life advice with nothing but a yeeha attitude. Look, I love a motivational quote as much as the next person, but a woman cannot live by cat poster quotes alone. 

But surely being positive is a good thing? 

Absolutely! There is loads and loads of research to support the theory that happy people live longer, and that optimism is good for your body, mind, and overall health. In fact, I do my best to surround myself with as many positive people as I can. But here’s the thing. A positive attitude doesn’t mean an absence of negative emotions.   

It is 100 per cent human to feel negative emotions and, if we’re being honest, there are times in everyone’s lives that genuinely suck, and they shouldn’t be required to pretend that everything’s okay if it isn’t.  Feeling all the feelings, whether painful or not, is an inherent human need. These emotions protect us, heal us, teach us and help us work our way through trauma that won’t simply dissipate because someone tossed a casual “look on the bright side,” their way. 

Denying those negative emotions invalidates genuine human experience in a way that is absolutely unhealthy.  

So, what are the signs of toxic positivity? 

The difference between a genuinely positive outlook and its toxic cousin can be subtle, but a low distress tolerance is at the core of the latter.  

An inability to deal with negative emotions can manifest itself as emotional avoidance and an inability to face problems. Signs of detachment and an inability to share true feelings can arise from this. 

People who display toxic positivity tend to be devoid of genuine empathy, responding to negative situations with false reassurances, and demand other people remain positive due to their inability to process uncomfortable emotions. 

Those people who lean towards toxic positivity also often find it unacceptable to be unhappy in themselves and suffer feelings of guilt if they do feel negative emotions, no matter how reasonable. It can also manifest as an extreme focus on gratitude to invalidate your own and others negative emotions. 

So, who is it really hurting? 

While toxic positivity often comes from a well-intentioned place, it can, and frequently does, cause harm to not only those projecting it but the people around them, who are left feeling isolated, flawed and inadequate. 

A healthy attitude is about being both realistic and grateful, accepting that there isn’t always a silver lining and that it is okay not to be okay all the time. It is understanding we can’t choose our emotions, but we can choose to use coping tools to help us through them. 

On the flipside, demands of positivity, whether self-inflicted or aimed at others, undermine and invalidate subjective experience, essentially gaslighting the person suffering. 

There is zero empathy involved in this kind of response, only insincere and often forceful reassurances that silence negative emotions and demean grief, creating additional stress and anxiety, and posing a serious threat to emotional stability.  

When issued to silence or downplay genuine human experience, toxic positivity can have an unhealthy impact on self-esteem as it says that any negative feelings are wrong.  The resulting feelings of shame and guilt can invalidate a person’s feelings of fear or sadness, which can lead to silence on serious issues. In turn this can trigger cause anxiety, depression and other mental health issues that are left unmanaged.

While keeping a positive mindset during hard times is to be applauded, understanding and accepting the sometimes-tough negative emotions we need to feel to process certain situations is valid and allowing ourselves and others to feel those feelings helps us to build resilience.  

This article provides general information only, and does not constitute mental health or medical advice. If you have concerns regarding your mental health, seek appropriate medical care or contact Lifeline on 131114.