Toxic positivity is an obsession with positive thinking. It is the belief that people should put a positive spin on all experiences, even those that are profoundly tragic.
Toxic positivity can silence negative emotions, demean grief, and make people feel under pressure to pretend to be happy even when they are struggling.
In some cases, it may be self-imposed. For example, a person may try to appear happy all the time by presenting everything in a positive light. However, it can also be an external pressure, such as when people tell a person who is grieving to move on or to look for a positive in their loss.
Keep reading to learn more about toxic positivity, including the risks and dangers that come with it and how to avoid it.
For several decades, books and popular media have highlighted the potential value of positive thinking, and there is some evidence to show that it can improve mental health. For example, a 2018 study of college students suggests that high self-esteem may support positive thinking, reducing the risk of suicidal ideas and gestures.
However, the data highlighting the benefits of positive thinking also show that factors such as social support and self-efficacy, which is a person’s ability to cope, interact with positive thinking to improve well-being. Positive thinking does not exist in a vacuum, and it is not a panacea for all of life’s challenges.
Toxic positivity imposes positive thinking as the only solution to problems, demanding that a person avoid negative thinking or expressing negative emotions.
The research around positive thinking generally focuses on the benefits of having an optimistic outlook when experiencing a problem. Toxic positivity, by contrast, demands positivity from people regardless of the challenges that they face, potentially silencing their emotions and deterring them from seeking social support.
Some examples of toxic positivity include:
- telling a parent whose child has died to be happy that at least they can have children
- asserting after a catastrophe that “everything happens for a reason”
- urging someone to focus on the positive aspects of a devastating loss
- telling someone to get over their grief or suffering and focus on the good things in their life
- labeling people who always appear positive or do not share their emotions as being stronger or more likable than others
- urging people to thrive no matter what adversity they face, such as by telling people that they must use enforced time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic to develop new skills or improve their fitness
- brushing off someone’s concerns by saying, “it could be worse”
A generally positive outlook is not harmful. However, a person who believes that they must only be positive may ignore serious problems or not address underlying mental health issues.
Similarly, people who demand positivity from others may offer insufficient support or make loved ones feel stigmatized and judged.
Some of the risks of toxic positivity include:
- Ignoring real harm: A 2020 narrative review of 29 studies of domestic violence found that a positive bias might cause people experiencing abuse to underestimate its severity and remain in abusive relationships. Optimism, hope, and forgiveness increased the risk of people staying with their abusers and being subject to escalating abuse.
- Demeaning a loss: Grief and sadness are normal in the face of loss. A person who repeatedly hears messages to move on or be happy might feel as though others do not care about their loss. A parent who has lost a child, for example, might feel that their child was unimportant to others, compounding their grief.
- Isolation and stigma: People who feel pressure to smile in the face of adversity may be less likely to seek support. They may feel isolated or ashamed of their feelings, deterring them from seeking help. According to the American Psychiatric Association, stigma can deter a person from seeking mental health treatment.
- Communication issues: Every relationship has challenges. Toxic positivity encourages people to ignore these challenges and focus on the positive. This approach can destroy communication and the ability to solve relationship problems.
- Low self-esteem: Everyone experiences negative emotions sometimes. Toxic positivity encourages people to ignore their negative emotions, even though stifling them can make them feel even more powerful. When a person is unable to feel positive, they may feel as though they are failing.
Humans feel a wide range of emotions, each of which is an important part of well-being. Anxiety, for example, may alert a person to a dangerous situation or a moral qualm, while anger is a normal response to injustice or mistreatment. Sadness may signal the intensity of a loss.
Not acknowledging these emotions means ignoring the action they can inspire. Moreover, failing to talk about them will not make them go away. Most people need help to deal with their emotions from time to time. Simply vocalizing emotions may make them feel less powerful, helping a person feel less “trapped” by them.
Some research shows that talking about emotions, including negative emotions, may even help the brain better process feelings. An older study found that labeling and talking about emotions reduced the strength of certain brain pathways associated with those emotions. This finding suggests that talking about feelings may make them feel less overwhelming.
Some strategies for avoiding self-imposed toxic positivity include:
- recognizing negative emotions as normal and an important part of the human experience
- identifying and naming emotions rather than trying to avoid them
- talking with trusted people about emotions, including negative feelings
- seeking support from nonjudgmental people, such as trusted friends or a therapist
A person can avoid imposing toxic positivity on others by:
- encouraging people to speak openly about their emotions
- getting more comfortable with negative emotions
- avoiding trying to have a positive response to everything a person says
- recognizing that intense negative emotions often coincide with powerful positive emotions, such as when profound grief signals intense love
Toxic positivity encourages people to ignore difficult emotions, potentially intensifying the power of these feelings.
Although positive thinking offers some benefits, no one can think positively all the time.
Forcing someone to express only positive emotions can stifle their ability to communicate and make them feel bad about themself for having negative thoughts.