Toxic positivity

July , 2021 by Polina Lynch

Have you ever listened to someone when they felt very sad, or something bad happened to them and said: “Don’t be upset, it’s not that bad” or “Relax, it will be fine”? Most probably, yes, and that means you fell victim to toxic positivity.

Cherry (2021) writes that toxic positivity is a belief that we should only have positive vibes even when something bad happens. In other words, when positivity covers up and represses certain feelings, it can be called toxic. She also claims that by forcing yourself or others to always be happy and optimistic, we minimalize authentic emotional experience. Another article by Long& Quintero (2019) stresses that toxic positivity stops us from dealing with emotions such as anger, sadness, jealousy as if it’s shameful and weak to have them. 

People do not intentionally want to engage in toxic positivity by saying “look at the bright side” or “people have it worse”, but they usually feel discomfort when someone displays anger or sadness (Cherry, 2021). Therefore, it feels easier “to put a plaster” on a wound and forget about it than face the reality of human feelings. 

Chiu (2020) compares toxic positivity phrases to force-feeding someone scoops of ice cream when they clearly don’t want it. She also quotes clinical psychologist Zuckerman who warns not to confuse toxic positivity with trying to make the best out of the situation. She argues that toxic positivity does not acknowledge that the bad situation happened and does not want us to accept some uncomfortable emotions. It is like pretending that there is no storm out there but sunny and pleasant. Trying to make the best of the situation, on the other hand, is acknowledging the reality and the feelings involved and doing something about it. It can be compared to accepting a dangerous storm out there and choosing to stay inside with the loved ones or running for cover. 

Cherry (2021) claims that toxic positivity can be harmful and cause shame and guilt in someone who is going through difficult times. The person will be less likely to open up if you told them that they need to stop being negative. Of course, no one likes to feel angry or sad, but these emotions are essential in our lives, and they are a normal part of being human. Pain is inevitable and what we need during difficult times are support and acceptance. 

Long& Quintero (2019) suggest what you can say to someone who is expressing strong feelings: “This is really hard; I am sorry you are going through it”; “I don’t know what to say, but I am here for you”; “Describe what you are feeling. I can just sit here with you”. 

For many people, life is not simply about “choosing happy” but it is a constant struggle. We do not know what inner battles other people fight. But every one of us went through some difficult times and was scarred by the experience.

It takes time for people to learn how to deal with intense feelings of sadness and anger. So, be caring and respectful. 

As a famous psychoanalyst, Carl Gustav Jung, said, “we cannot change anything unless we accept it”. Life is a balance of good and bad, and it’s time we stop making happiness the only destination. Resilience, kindness, and empathy are more important than good vibes only mentality. 

Jung also said: “There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year’s course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness”. So, let’s embrace life as it is and focus on the journey while offering support and acceptance to those who struggle. 

Cherry, K. (2021, February 1). Why Toxic Positivity Can Be So Harmful. Verywell Mind.

Chiu, A. (2020, August 19). Time to ditch ‘toxic positivity,’ experts say: ‘It’s okay not to be okay.’ Washington Post. Published.

Long, J., & Quintero, S. (2019). Toxic Positivity: The Dark Side of Positive Vibes. The Psychology Group Fort Lauderdale.