Mindset is an essential and often overlooked part of health, especially when we learn to see health beyond the outward appearance. Letting go of negative thoughts is a good first step, but replacing them with a “good vibes only” mentality can be just as damaging, a mindset increasingly referred to as toxic positivity.
A massive rejection of negativity in all its forms, toxic positivity can inadvertently invalidate feelings and experiences — and make people feel like they’re failing or doing something wrong, says Dr Nicole Lacherza-Drew, Psy.D., licensed psychologist and Owner of Vici Psychological Care.
“There won’t always be positives, and that’s okay,” she says.
Read on for real-life examples of toxic optimism, warning signs to look for — and tips on how to avoid giving or receiving it.
What is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity refers to the idea that we need to see the good side of every situation, no matter how bad, difficult, or devoid of good sides it may be. (A classic example is the “it’s good” even.)
The destructive effects of negativity are well documented. Not only is it depressing by definition, but can impair cognitive function and cloud our judgment, impairing our ability to act in a situation.
But force positivity can make a situation worseespecially the one we have the power to change.
“Toxic positivity is basically the idea that no matter what happens or the outcome, you have to have a positive mindset or try to find the positive in the situation or the outcome,” says Lacherza-Drew.
Although it seems preferable to mistakes and failures, “toxic positivity can be seen as a form of gaslighting,” she adds.
7 Examples of Relating and Real Toxic Positivity
How many of these situations sound familiar to you?
- You talk with your friend about your horrible boss and profess that you are desperately looking for a new job. She responds with something like “you should just be happy with what you have.”
- You confide in your mother-in-law that you are having trouble getting pregnant. His answer ? “Everything happens for a reason.”
- You tell your colleague that your partner has received some frightening health news. They say, “it could be worse”.
- You’re taking a course and you don’t understand a key concept. When you talk to your instructor, he tells you, “Just stay positive. You will have it!
- You lose your beloved pet while on a business trip — your return flight is canceled. The airline agent says, “God only gives us what we can handle.”
- You’re halfway through your first 60-minute lesson at a local cycling studio. You don’t feel strong enough to add more resistance, so you say something sarcastic and funny to your instructor. She says, “Positive vibes only here! No complaints!”
- Your children are sick again and you work from home while trying not to catch their germs. The house is messy and you are exhausted. You tell your sister that you feel overwhelmed. His advice? “But on the bright side, you work in sweatpants!”
What’s wrong with toxic positivity?
What’s wrong with these scenarios – and why should not you try to give people a little boost when they’re feeling down? Although they seem useful, “they are not effective in helping a person overcome their emotions and come out of them in a better place”, explains Kalley HartmanLMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Newport Beach, CA.
Instead of help you stay motivatedcultivate a healthier self-image and grow as a person, toxic positivity keeps you beholden to impossible standards of accomplishment and success. Here’s how thoughtless positivity harms your health:
Keeps you from managing your feelings
Not only does toxic positivity keep you from managing your emotions, but it also “creates a false sense of happiness that relies on denial or ignorance of certain aspects of reality,” Hartman says. This can lead to other problems down the line.
Prevents you from growing as a person
And, she adds, “when we’re constantly pushing away our uncomfortable feelings, it’s harder for us to learn from our experiences and grow.” It feels like you’re in it groundhog daymaking the same mistakes over and over again.
“This attitude can make people feel like they’re not allowed to express their negative feelings, which can lead to feelings of shame and guilt,” adds Candace Kotkin – De CarvalhoLSW, LCADC, CCS, CCTP.
Can prolong your suffering
You may notice your sense of reality changing, as you begin to feel like the bad things are all your fault.
“It can be especially damaging when it stops people from seeking help, because they may feel like their problems are too insignificant or not worth addressing,” Kotkin-De Carvalho says.
Can make you feel like a failure
If you are surrounded by people who have joined “Lucky Girl Syndrome” you might (mistakenly) feel like you’re running out, says Lacherza-Drew. “They may believe they are doing something wrong or that something is wrong with them.”
Toxic Positivity Vs. Optimism: What’s the Difference?
According to Hartman, toxic positivity “involves denying or ignoring difficult emotions, while optimism involves maintaining a positive attitude in the face of adversity.”
Additionally, “toxic positivity often has the effect of invalidating another person’s feelings or experiences, while optimism is used to motivate and encourage people,” she says.
The practical differences between optimism and toxic positivity may seem nuanced at first, but they become clearer with practice.
Say you’re going through a tough time. You lost your job or went through a difficult time with your partner. You turn to a trusted friend for advice.
Optimism is like, “I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this, my friend. I know it’s difficult right now. You can be honest about how you feel and then maybe we can make a list of good things that are going on or think of ways I can help you.
Toxic positivity manifests as, “I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this, my friend. But you’re strong and resilient, and you’ve survived 100% of your bad days so far. You just need to hold your head up high and manifest the outcome you want. Don’t even think about the “what ifs”! You have this!
Although well-meaning, the positive toxic response can do as much – if not more – harm than good, addressing difficulties with hokum and downplaying the seriousness of the situation for the one experiencing it.
Focus instead on Health esteem means appreciating ourselves as we are right now, while acknowledging that we have goals and a desire for change. It’s a healthy balance between optimism and motivation.
10 warning signs of toxic positivity
Here are the warning signs to look for (from others or from yourself):
- You feel ashamed to share how you feel.
- They won’t let you complain or be honest about your feelings.
- You hide your true feelings, especially on social media.
- They tell you to be positive, to demonstrate or to believe more in yourself.
- You only share wellness quotes and mantras.
- They are trying to find the silver lining instead of acknowledging your situation.
- You are told to be grateful and to stop complaining.
- They tell you not to kill the mood with negativity.
- You ask for help and they share a Pinterest quote.
- They tell you to get over it or laugh when difficulties arise.
How to Avoid Toxic Positivity
You can train yourself to notice and avoid toxic positivity the same way you do other habits. It starts with self-awareness, says Kotkin-De Carvalho.
“Be aware of your own thoughts and feelings, and pay attention to how you communicate them.” Being aware of the words you use — and how they may be received — can help, she says.
It’s easiest to do when you’re writing, so start with your texts, DMs, and emails. Take a deep breath and read them over before hitting send.
Self-reflection can help you spot toxic thoughts, words and actions, Hartman says. Once you learn to recognize these red flags, you can reframe them. Avoiding the “toxpos” rabbit hole means slowing down and taking “me time,” adds Lacherza-Drew.
“We are human beings – not every day or every feeling will be good or positive. Realizing this helps decrease toxic positivity,” she says.
mindfulness exercises, loggingand posting sticky note reminders where you’ll see them can also save you from the positivity trap.
How can you avoid diffusion unwanted good vibes? Listen, says Kotkin-De Carvalho.
“Not everyone you meet needs a solution, and sometimes it’s best to be there for them, to listen and offer support.”
How to deal with a positive drug addict
The best way to deal with an addicted person? One word: Borders. Let them know their behavior isn’t cool with you, and do what you can to maintain your own mental well-being.
Remember, you can’t control someone else’s behavior — only your reaction(s), says Lacherza-Drew. You may need to avoid certain topics, leave the room, change the subject, or limit the time you spend with someone.
If you’re up for it, “gently remind that everyone experiences negative emotions sometimes,” suggests Kotkin-De Carvalho. Remind them that difficult things are normal. “Let them know you’re there for them and that it’s okay to talk about difficult topics without judgment.”