Optimism and good cheer are far from fatal flaws. Still, they can have major consequences when taken to extremes.
So, you want to dodge pain, fear, and sadness. You favor sunshine over rain, hope over despair, and harmony over conflict.
Generally, people don’t enjoy feeling distressed or down, and it’s natural to hope for happiness and success.
In reality, though, life is a complex blend of experiences.
Fixing your gaze to the bright side and refusing to acknowledge any less-than-desirable thoughts or emotions might create a temporary illusion of peace. Yet this joy tends to be false and fleeting, a subpar knockoff of true contentment.
Turning down the volume on unwanted feelings and insisting others in your life cultivate the same positivity generally won’t manifest the happiness you seek. In fact, it often does the opposite.
Toxic positivity can have some harmful effects, and in the end, do more harm than good.
Toxic positivity, in short, describes positivity taken to an extreme. (The phrase “too much of a good thing” might come to mind.)
It implies two main things:
- You should always feel good, even when bad things happen.
- Feeling good is simply a choice you make.
Toxic positivity is not only about feelings, either. It’s also about your thoughts and mindset. It implies that a positive mindset can be more powerful than your circumstances.
“Learning how to combat negative thinking, focus on what you’re grateful for… is vitally important to well-being,” says Vicki Botnick, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Tarzana, California.
She emphasizes, though, that happiness isn’t simply a matter of willpower. “Overly simplistic advice, like ‘Turn that frown upside down,’ becomes punishing, as it suggests we’re just notstrong enough to create a better reality for ourselves,” Botnick says.
This ideology discounts the reality of life, which by its very nature is unpredictable and often fraught with messy and overwhelming challenges.
Positivity can’t wash away everything. Maybe you’re dealing with:
- mental health concerns
- bullying, neglect, or abuse
- a breakup
- physical illness or health scares
- financial concerns or unemployment
You might find it tough to stay positive throughout, but it’s natural to experience distress and uncertainty in these situations.
Acknowledging your pain doesn’t mean you have a negative attitude or make you weak. Yet, that’s the message toxic positivity can send.
Toxic positivity can creep in wearing all manner of disguises, but it often begins as an earnest desire to favor the good over the bad.
After being let go from your job, for example, you might tell yourself, “No, this is great! I finally have the chance to find a job I really enjoy.”
There’s nothing wrong with that perspective. That said, there’s also nothing wrong with grieving the loss of a job that you can acknowledge you really liked quite a bit.
In another example, let’s say you’re an active social media user.
You share photos of your activities, family, friends, and beloved dog on a near-daily basis. You always make a point to mention how grateful you are for your loved ones and the opportunities you enjoy.
Lately, though, you’ve been having a rough time. The demands of your job have increased, leaving you stressed and overwhelmed. You aren’t getting enough sleep, and it’s getting harder each morning to get out of bed.
You feel miserable, but you can’t bring yourself to tell anyone what’s going on. Instead, you continue sharing carefully cultivated photos from your life, smiling and infusing your posts with an upbeat lightheartedness that couldn’t be further from how you actually feel.
As a result, none of your loved ones has any idea about your distress or that you could use their support.
Toxic positivity can also drive people-pleasing behaviors and set you on the path to burnout.
Ever agreed to help someone when you didn’t have the time? Accepted an additional task when you’re already overloaded with responsibilities?
Saying yes to things you don’t have the mental or emotional bandwidth for, rather than acknowledging you need help yourself, won’t do you much good in the long run.
Other key signs you might notice in yourself or others
Toxic positivity can involve:
- a false projection of life as perfect
- a refusal to discuss problems or concerns
- suggestions that people shouldn’t mention or dwell on bad things that happen
- a tendency to blame people for their own circumstances
- the belief that pain and distress happen only to those who don’t try hard enough or are somehow flawed
- difficulty experiencing and expressing emotions
- a habit of turning away from unpleasant thoughts and feelings
A “good vibes only” mentality offers a false impression of what it means to achieve contentment and happiness.
Realistically speaking, it’s just not possible to feel good all of the time. Toxic positivity denies the reality of life’s challenges and pushes the notion that you have total control over your emotions and experiences as the author of your own story.
Of course, that’s not entirely accurate. You can learn to manage unwanted emotions and ease the distress they cause. Still, you can’t entirely prevent them from showing up.
Even if you ignore them, this invalidation usually won’t yield the results you’re hoping for.
“All feelings are valid and necessary,” Botnick says. She explains that learning to allow and accept sadness, anger, and vulnerability often leads to a fully realized life and a fully integrated personality.
Refusing to acknowledge a problem prevents you from exploring possible solutions. Also, insisting that nothing can go wrong means you probably won’t have a backup plan in case of an unexpected change in circumstances.
Sudden complications, then, might catch you off guard and leave you struggling to cope.
If you’re experiencing negative feelings, pain, and sadness, venting your feelings can help.
Allemotions are valid — even the ones that hurt
Suppressing unwanted emotions doesn’t erase them. In fact, it can make them more intense, adding to your mental burden.
Toxic positivity can also fuel feelings of powerlessness, shame, and guilt.
If you place the responsibility for your distress at your door, you might easily feel hopeless about your situation improving when your efforts to “think positive” make little difference.
It can also have serious outcomes when your distress relates to mental health concerns — such as anxiety or depression.
Mental health professionals can help you identify and address key factors causing your distress.
Optimism can certainly play a part in your treatment success, but you can’t heal depression or anxiety with good vibes alone. Without professional support and treatment, those symptoms can quickly get worse.
If you’re having symptoms of depression and anxiety that don’t seem to go away, consider using our find a therapist tool to find the mental health support that best fits your needs and situation.
The myriad notes of life — positive, negative, meh, so-so, and everything in between — combine to give your unique experiences a full-bodied flavor. They all have value.
People who talk about the power of positive thinking often do have good intentions. They might have less awareness of the complexities of physical or emotional pain.
So, what do you do when “don’t worry, be happy” doesn’t do the trick?
Botnick recommends connecting with people who recognize that life has ups and downs, taking breaks from social media as needed, and turning to things that truly inspire you.
“There’s nothing wrong with positivity,” she concludes. “It just has to come after you’ve lived through your pain, after you’ve expressed it, examined it, and found the right time to try to move past it.”