"Toxic Positivity" Is a Problem, Therapists Say—Here's How to Spot It in Your Life
Statements like "look on the bright side" can invalidate your feelings and those of others.
We've all been told at some point to "stay positive" in life. Maintaining a good attitude and having faith that things will work out can be a productive mindset, keeping unnecessary worries in check. But there are instances when this way of thinking becomes harmful to your mental health. Experts have dubbed it "toxic positivity," which you'll want to do your best to avoid.
"Toxic positivity is the belief that people should put a positive spin on every and all experiences, despite their emotional pain or difficult circumstances," Holly Schiff, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Greenwich, Connecticut, tells Best Life. "The problem with that is that it can silence negative emotions, invalidate grief or loss, and make people feel under pressure to be happy even when they're struggling."
Especially for those going through tough times, toxic positivity can limit one's ability to share "authentic, genuine emotions," due to fear that they might be dismissed and told that they should be cheerful instead, Schiff explains. As life isn't always perfect, experts say it's crucial to recognize the signs of this unhealthy pattern, both internally and externally. Read on to find out four ways therapists say you spot toxic positivity in your life—and how to avoid it.
Pay attention to your thought process.
If you find that you're concealing your true emotions and tend to avoid your problems—or if you find that you do this with others—you could be affected by toxic positivity. That's why it's so vital to evaluate your thought process and ensure you aren't limiting yourself or failing to cope with reality, according to Billy Roberts, LISW-S, therapist and owner of Focused Mind ADHD Counseling.
"There are times in life when being positive helps, but when the mindset eclipses dealing with actual feelings, it can be a problem," he explains. In this case, Abby Wilson, LCSW and psychotherapist, suggests challenging your belief system.
"To avoid toxic positivity, I recommend being mindful of any thoughts that say you should 'get over it,' or 'just focus on the positive,'" she says. "Sometimes focusing on the positive can lead to positive emotions, but we want to have a healthy balance of acknowledging the positive, and holding space for the negative when necessary."
Even further, treat all of your feelings—especially the sad or painful ones—like you would a valued relationship.
"In a sense, we are all in a relationship with our feelings," Roberts says. "Similar to relationships with people, if we invalidate and ignore them, the relationship is strained. On the other hand, if we validate, acknowledge, and support them, the relationship often improves."
Recognize when someone else is projecting toxic positivity.
Just as it's important to recognize if you're forcing a toxic mindset onto yourself, you should be aware of those around you who perpetuate this idea. These are the friends or family members who often tell you to "look at the bright side" when something unfortunate happens or to "just be happy" in general. They may genuinely believe that they're encouraging you to be optimistic, but in reality, it can make you feel worse.
"Those who leave you feeling guilty, ashamed or invalidated when you confide in them tend to believe in toxic positivity," Sam Holmes, editor-in-chief of the relationship and personal development website Feel and Thrive, says. "For their beliefs not to affect your inner world, limit your interactions."
If you know someone is unlikely to be receptive to your thoughts and feelings, they're probably not the best person to confide in. However, if someone unexpectedly dismisses you, Wilson suggests being direct.
"If someone else projects toxic positivity onto you, a good response could be 'I really think I need to process what I'm experiencing before I try to look at the bright side of things," she says.
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Understand that your emotions are normal.
We also all respond to hardship and difficult situations differently, but if you deny or ignore your associated feelings in order to keep an unfailingly positive mindset, you're doing more harm than good.
"As humans, it is completely natural to experience grief, sadness, loneliness, anger, etc. We need to be able to hold space for these emotions, express and process them in healthy ways (including with other people), and receive empathy and validation in return," Wilson says. "Viewing these emotions as unacceptable does not allow the necessary space to process them in a healthy way."
Schiff also stresses the importance of acknowledging your emotions rather than suppressing them. "Remember that whatever you are feeling is okay and completely normal," she says. "Being healthy means dealing with and understanding all of your feelings—both good and bad."
Emotions are complicated, and you can feel several at once, she adds. Either way, being "realistic" and understanding that you're not wrong for feeling a certain way is key.
Take a break from social media.
Social media has quickly become a part of daily life for so many of us. We use it to share life updates, interact with friends, or simply scroll to pass the time. But toxic positivity also tends to crop up here, where there are entire accounts that encourage you to think positively or "stay strong" if you're going through something.
According to the mental health platform BetterHelp, toxic positivity is hard to avoid on social media, but you can always unfollow or remove those accounts or friends that don't make your feel good about yourself.
You can also "detox" or take a break from your socials altogether and focus instead on doing more of what you love and spending time with people you enjoy.
"Avoiding toxic positivity may mean dialing down on activities such as excessive social media use," Holmes explains. "Being more aware of your relationships and the people around you is also important."