We often hear the phrase “Look on the bright side” as a well-meaning encouragement to focus on positive aspects during challenging times. But when this outlook is pushed to the extreme, it can become a phenomenon known as toxic positivity. It’s the excessive and ineffective overgeneralisation of a happy, optimistic state that denies or invalidates the authentic human emotional experience.
Toxic positivity stems from the belief that the best or only way to cope with adversity is to put a positive spin on it. It manifests as blanket statements like “good vibes only” or “don’t be negative.” On the surface, such sentiments seem virtuous; after all, who doesn’t want to be happy and think positively? But taken too far, this compulsory sunshine and rainbows mentality can be detrimental.
When optimism becomes oppressive
Toxic positivity can manifest in various ways, from a friend dismissing your feelings with a “Just stay positive!” to a social media culture that promotes a curated image of an ideal life. While optimism is undoubtedly beneficial, it’s essential to recognise that it can cross a boundary where it becomes detrimental. For instance, when someone is experiencing grief, hardship, or disappointment, being told to “just be positive” can feel like their feelings are being dismissed or belittled. It creates a dynamic where it’s not acceptable to feel anything other than happy, which is an unrealistic expectation for anyone.
A 2011 study examined the effects of enforced positivity on emotional well-being. They found that individuals who felt pressured to feel positive when they were not naturally inclined to do so actually experienced more distress. The study underscores the importance of allowing space for a range of emotions.
This enforcement of positivity essentially amounts to emotional invalidation. When someone responds to a difficult situation or negative emotions with toxic positivity, such as “don’t be so negative”, it sends the message that those feelings are wrong or undesirable. This can lead people to feel shame for having normal human emotions, which takes a toll on mental health. Suppressing emotions or denying their existence doesn’t make them go away; it just keeps them further from conscious awareness.
The psychological impact of enforced happiness
The insistence on constant positivity can lead to the avoidance of dealing with underlying emotional issues. This avoidance can manifest in behaviours such as denial, minimisation, and invalidation of personal or others’ emotional experiences. In the long term, this can contribute to increased anxiety, depression, and overall emotional dysregulation.
A 2010 study highlights the negative impact of enforced positivity in the workplace. The researchers found that when employees were expected to display emotions that were not genuinely felt, it could lead to emotional exhaustion and withdrawal, affecting both their well-being and job performance.
This again speaks to the problem with invalidating emotions. Putting on a façade of happiness when one is actually feeling stressed or upset can take a significant toll. Emotional labour, or having to regulate emotions to meet workplace demands, has been linked to job burnout. While some positive affect may motivate workers, forced positivity tends to backfire. Authenticity is key; creating work cultures that allow for emotional honesty yields far better results.
The balance between positive thinking and emotional authenticity
It is crucial to strike a balance between maintaining a positive outlook and acknowledging the full spectrum of human emotions. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is one psychological intervention that emphasises the importance of accepting emotions rather than denying them. By acknowledging and accepting their emotions, individuals can better navigate through them without becoming overwhelmed.
Encouraging a balanced emotional perspective also involves promoting resilience. This doesn’t mean ignoring negative feelings; rather, it involves recognising these feelings and working through them. This balanced approach is linked to healthier psychological functioning and greater emotional agility. Focusing only on positive emotions is not realistic or helpful. The goal should be to develop the resources and coping skills to deal with negative emotions when they inevitably arise.
How to avoid falling into the trap of toxic positivity
To avoid toxic positivity, it is important to develop an awareness of one’s emotions and to practise authentic expression. This can be achieved through mindfulness practices, which encourage present-moment awareness and non-judgmental acceptance of one’s emotional state. It’s also helpful to build a support network that allows for the sharing of a range of emotions without judgement or censure.
Practising self-compassion is another vital step in combating toxic positivity. This involves treating oneself with kindness, understanding, and forgiveness, especially during times of failure or difficulty. It is the antithesis of toxic positivity, as it acknowledges the difficulty of the situation while offering comfort and understanding.
It’s also essential to set boundaries around toxic positivity. If certain people, social media accounts, or communities perpetuate toxic positivity, it may be necessary to step back from them. Surrounding oneself with people who validate emotions makes it easier to avoid suppressing feelings. Getting professional help to process difficult emotions can also mitigate the effects of toxic positivity.
It is important not to beat oneself up for negative emotions. They are a natural part of life for everyone. The goal should be to acknowledge, understand, and accept feelings rather than judge them. With this balanced and compassionate approach, we can derive the benefits of positivity without its toxic effects.
Moving forward, we must reshape the cultural narrative around emotions. We need to overcome the stigma around mental health issues and normalise discussions about topics like depression and anxiety. Only by acknowledging the reality of negative emotions can we develop resilience and coping strategies. While positivity has its place, the most psychologically healthy outlook integrates realism, honesty, and compassion. With greater emotional agility, we can weather life’s challenges with our humanity intact.
Sophie Blackwood is a freelance writer with a keen interest in psychology and wellness.