What Is Toxic Positivity? (2023)

Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. While there are benefits to being optimistic and engaging in positive thinking, toxic positivity rejects all difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful and often falsely-positive façade.

Having a positive outlook on life is good for your mental well-being. The problem is that life isn't always positive. We all have painful emotions and experiences. Those emotions, while often unpleasant, need to be felt and dealt with openly and honestly to achieve acceptance and greater psychological health.

Toxic positivity takes positive thinking to an overgeneralized extreme. This attitude doesn't just stress the importance of optimism—it also minimizes and even denies any trace of human emotions not strictly happy or positive.

Toxic positivity means having a "good vibes only" approach to life and discarding any seemingly negative emotions. It denies people the authentic support they need to cope with what they are facing.

Examples of Toxic Positivity

Toxic positivity can take a wide variety of forms. Some examples you may have encountered in your own life include:

  • When something bad happens, such as losing your job, people may say to “just stay positive” or “look on the bright side.” While such comments are often meant to be sympathetic, they can shut down anything the other person might want to say about what they are experiencing.
  • After experiencing some type of loss, people might say that “everything happens for a reason.” While people will make such statements because they believe they are comforting, this is also a way of avoiding the other person's pain.
  • Upon expressing disappointment or sadness, someone may respond that “happiness is a choice.” This suggests that if someone is feeling negative emotions, it’s their own fault for not “choosing” to be happy.

Such statements are often well-intentioned, or people just don't know what else to say and don't know how to be empathetic. Still, it is important to recognize that toxic positivity can be harmful.

Toxic Positivity vs. Optimism

It is possible to be optimistic in the face of difficult experiences and challenges. But people going through trauma don’t need to be told to stay positive or feel that they are being judged for not maintaining a sunny outlook.

Why Toxic Positivity Is Harmful

Too much positivity is toxic because it can harm people who are going through difficult times. Rather than being able to share genuine human emotions and gain unconditional support, people who are faced with toxic positivity find their feelings dismissed, ignored, or outright invalidated.

  • It's shaming: Receiving toxic positivity can lead to feelings of shame. It tells people that the emotions they are feeling are unacceptable.When someone is suffering, they need to know that their emotions are valid and that they can find relief and love in their friends and family.
  • It causes guilt: Being toxically positive can also cause feelings of guilt. It sends a message that if you aren't finding a way to feel positive—even in the face of tragedy—you are doing something wrong.
  • It avoids authentic human emotion: Toxic positivity functions as an avoidance mechanism. When people engage in this type of behavior, it allows them to sidestep emotional situations that make them feel uncomfortable. Sometimes we turn these same ideas on ourselves, internalizing them. When we feel difficult emotions, we then discount, dismiss, and deny them.
  • It prevents growth: Toxic positivity allows us to avoid feeling things that might be painful. But this denies us the ability to face challenging feelings that can ultimately lead to growth and deeper insight.

The “positive vibes only” mantra can be particularly grating during times of intense personal distress. When people are coping with situations such as financial troubles, job loss, illness, or the loss of a loved one, being told that they need to look on the bright side can seem downright cruel.

Some even consider toxic positivity a form of gaslighting. This is because it creates a false narrative of reality, often causing you to question what you think and feel.

At their best, toxic positivity statements come off as trite platitudes that let a person off the hook for dealing with other people’s feelings. At their worst, these comments end up causing feelings of shame and blame in people who are often dealing with incredibly difficult situations.

Signsof Toxic Positivity

Toxic positivity can often be subtle. Learning to recognize the signs can help you better identify this type of behavior. Signs that you might be toxically positive include:

  • Brushing off problems rather than facing them
  • Hiding your true feelings behind feel-good quotes that seem socially acceptable
  • Minimizing other people's feelings because they make you uncomfortable
  • Shaming other people when they don't have a positive attitude

It's equally important to know when someone else may be acting toxically positive with you, potentially hurting your mental well-being. Signs that you may be on the receiving end of toxic positivity include:

(Video) How Toxic Positivity Leads to More Suffering | Mahmoud Khedr | TEDxMenloCollege

  • Feeling guilty about being sad, angry, or disappointed
  • Hiding or disguising how you really feel
  • Trying to be stoic or "get over" painful emotions

How to Avoid Toxic Positivity

If you recognize toxically positive behaviors in yourself, there are things that you can do to develop a healthier, more supportive approach. Some ideas include:

  • Develop an attitude that "it's okay to not be okay." Instead of having a viewpoint that it's wrong to have negative feelings, accept that it isn't realistic to be okay all the time. Remind yourself that if someone doesn't feel okay, that's perfectly acceptable.
  • Manage your negative emotions, but don't deny them. Negative emotions can cause stress when unchecked. But they can also provide important information that can lead to beneficial changes in your life.
  • Focus on listening to others and showing support. When someone expresses a difficult emotion, don’t shut them down with toxic positivity. Instead, let them know that what they are feeling is normal and you are there to listen.

Toxic Statements

  • Just stay positive!

  • Good vibes only!

  • It could be worse.

  • Things happen for a reason.

  • Failure isn't an option.

  • Happiness is a choice.

Non-Toxic Alternatives

  • I'm listening.

  • I'm here no matter what.

  • That must be really hard.

  • Sometimes bad things happen. How can I help?

    (Video) What is Toxic Positivity and Why is it Harmful?

  • Failure is sometimes part of life.

  • Your feelings are valid.

Coping With Toxic Positivity

If someone you know has a tendency to respond to your negative feelings with statements that aren't supportive or emotionally validating, ways to deal with a toxic positivity person include:

  • Be realistic about what you feel. When facing a difficult situation, it’s normal to feel stressed, worried, or even fearful. Don’t expect too much from yourself. Practice self-care and work on taking steps that can help improve your situation.
  • Don't be afraid to challenge the person being toxically positive. While challenging this type of response can be uncomfortable, confronting the person's approach provides them the opportunity to grow. This can be especially helpful if facing toxic positivity at work, helping leaders evaluate the impact of their statements and actions.
  • Know that it’s okay to feel more than one thing. If you are facing a challenge, it’s possible to feel nervous about the future and, at the same time, hopeful that you will succeed. Your emotions can be as complex as the situation itself.
  • Look for meaning behind what you're going through. "Tragic optimism," or searching for the meaning behind difficult situations, is the opposite of toxic positivity and, according to some, is considered the antidote to this type of response.
  • Notice how you feel. Following “positive” social media accounts can sometimes serve as a source of inspiration but pay attention to how you feel after you view and interact with such content. If you are left with a sense of shame or guilt after seeing “uplifting” posts, it might be due to toxic positivity. In such cases, consider limiting your social media consumption.
  • Put your feelings into words. When going through something hard, think about ways to give voice to your emotions in a way that is productive. Write in a journal or talk to a friend. Research suggests that just putting what you are feeling into words can help lower the intensity of negative feelings.

In the end, give yourself permission to feel your feelings. These feelings are real, valid, and important. They can also provide information and help you see things about a situation that you need to work to change.

This doesn't necessarily mean that you should act on every emotion that you feel. Sometimes it is important to sit with your feelings and give yourself the time and space to process the situation and accept your emotions before you take action.

Press Play for Advice on Self-Worth

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares tips for reframing your self-limiting beliefs, featuring Paralympic gold medalist Mallory Weggemann. Click below to listen now.

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A Word From Verywell

Toxic positivity is often subtle, and many of us have engaged in this type of thinking at one point or another. By learning to recognize it, however, you’re better able to rid yourself of this type of thinking and provide (and receive) more authentic support when you are going through something that isn’t easy.

Start noticing toxic statements and strive to let yourself and others feel your emotions—both the positive and the negative.

7 Sources

(Video) Narcissists and Toxic Positivity

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Passmore HA, Howell AJ, Holder MD. Positioning implicit theories of well-being within a positivity framework. J Happiness Studies. 2018;19:2445-2463. doi:10.1007/s10902-017-9934-2

  2. Ford BQ, Lam P, John OP, Mauss IB. The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidence. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2018;115(6):1075-1092. doi:10.1037/pspp0000157

  3. Dajani T, Bryant V, Sackett D, Allgood J. "Your wellness program is interfeing with my well-being": Reducing the unintended consequences of wellness initiatives in undergraduate medical education. MedEdPublish. 2021;10(1):11-15. doi:10.15694/mep.2021.000146.1

  4. Fischer AH. Comment: the emotional basis of toxic affect. Emot Rev. 2018;10(1):57-58. doi:10.1177/1754073917719327

  5. Collins R. Leading forward: Embracing feedback and moving toward authentic positivity. Nurse Lead. 2022;20(3):270-272. doi:10.1016/j.mnl.2022.02.008

  6. Association for Psychological Science. The opposite of toxic positivity.

  7. Lieberman MD, Eisenberger NI, Crockett MJ, Tom SM, Pfeifer JH, Way BM. Putting feelings into words: affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychol Sci. 2007;18(5):421-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01916.x

What Is Toxic Positivity? (2)

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.

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(Video) Shame, Trauma, and Toxic Positivity - 3 Ways Out

FAQs

What is considered toxic positivity? ›

We define toxic positivity as the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.

What are signs of toxic positivity? ›

Signs of Toxic Positivity

Brushing off problems rather than facing them. Hiding your true feelings behind feel-good quotes that seem socially acceptable. Minimizing other people's feelings because they make you uncomfortable. Shaming other people when they don't have a positive attitude.

What is toxic positivity and why is it harmful? ›

Toxic positivity happens when people believe that negative thoughts about anything should be avoided. Even in response to events which normally would evoke sadness, such as loss or hardships, positivity is encouraged as a means to cope, but tends to overlook and dismiss true expression.

What is the difference between positivity and toxic positivity? ›

While positivity can help people in dealing with difficult times, toxic positivity does the exact opposite. While people can find comfort in positivity, toxic positivity leads to people's emotions being dismissed, ignored or invalidated.

Is toxic positivity Gaslighting? ›

Don't be fooled by the 'positive' slant, though, toxic positivity is gaslighting. Although at first glance, toxic positivity may seem to have a 'positive' focus, it is actually a form of gaslighting (when someone causes you to question your own reality).

How can I be positive but not toxic? ›

Alternatives to toxic positivity
  1. Practice mindfulness. ...
  2. Recognize that emotions are tools. ...
  3. Admit your interpersonal mistakes. ...
  4. Clarify your needs. ...
  5. If you have kids, teach them how to express all emotions. ...
  6. Let yourself feel your feelings.
8 Sept 2021

What is the opposite of toxic positivity? ›

Tragic optimism is situated in a position that is the polar opposite of toxic positivity. While toxic positivity is designed to pretend like negative experiences or unpleasant emotions simply do not exist, tragic optimism is all about acknowledging that there is tragedy, heartache, and sorrow in our lives.

What traits does a toxic person have? ›

Here are five red flags you're in a toxic situation you may need to address.
  • They gaslight or lie to you. ...
  • They don't apologize properly. ...
  • They don't understand how their behavior makes others feel. ...
  • They think they are superior to others. ...
  • They see themselves as a victim of their own behavior.
12 Jan 2022

Is toxic positivity abuse? ›

In the context of mental health, toxic positivity can pose a serious threat to emotional stability. Just like substance use turns into abuse when it begins to interfere with other parts of your life, positivity can become toxic when it is forcefully used to downplay, delegitimize or undervalue negative emotions.

Why positive vibes only is toxic? ›

Key points. The “good vibes only” trend on social media turns positivity toxic. Pushing "positive vibes" can make people feel inadequate, shamed and isolated. TikTok's authenticity may help normalize the full range of emotional expression.

Do you tell a toxic person they are toxic? ›

As soon as you notice toxic behaviors, confront the person. Call them out on any lies or inconsistencies. Tell them you don't appreciate how they behave. This shows them that you're paying attention — and you're giving them a chance to explain themselves or apologize.

What personality type is gaslighting? ›

Gaslighting is the use of a patterned, repetitive set of manipulation tactics that makes someone question reality. It's often used by people with narcissistic personality disorder, abusive individuals, cult leaders, criminals, and dictators. It's important to point out that gaslighting is a “patterned” behavior.

What is a good example of gaslighting? ›

Gaslighting happens when an abuser tries to control a victim by twisting their sense of reality. An example of gaslighting would be a partner doing something abusive and then denying it happened.

What is toxic gratitude? ›

Toxic Gratitude is when you only look at the good in your life and label anything that makes you feel negative emotions as something bad. We're so caught up in the pain and the emotion of the moment that we begin to miss life's purpose.

Does toxic positivity cause depression? ›

Positive thinking improves life outcomes and reduces the likelihood of suicide ideation and behavior, but toxic positivity forces people to disregard negative emotions. Suppressing emotions can lead to emotional outbursts and contribute to irritability, anxiety, and depression.

What do you call a constantly negative person? ›

curmudgeon /kərˈməjən/ noun A bad-tempered or surly person.

What do toxic people say? ›

They might say the meanest things to you just to weaken your self-esteem and then they might ridicule you for genuinely feeling bad for what they said. It's their way of bringing you down and tiring you in the relationship ('7 Things A Toxic Person Would Say To Silence You And Control Your Actions', 2019).

What's a worst personality characteristic? ›

The list of bad human traits is long. It includes: arrogance, deception, delusion, dishonesty, ego, envy, greed, hatred, immorality, lying, selfishness, unreliability, violence, etc.

What is a toxic message? ›

Toxic text messages are texts that drain you physically and mentally while affecting the overall health of your relationship. These texts demand you to act or behave in a certain way that is unnatural and only satisfies your partner's insecurities.

What are the 5 signs of emotional abuse? ›

5 Signs of Emotional Abuse
  • They are Hyper-Critical or Judgmental Towards You. ...
  • They Ignore Boundaries or Invade Your Privacy. ...
  • They are Possessive and/or Controlling. ...
  • They are Manipulative. ...
  • They Often Dismiss You and Your Feelings.
23 May 2017

How do narcissists use toxic positivity? ›

Toxic Positivity and Narcissism

A narcissist may use a "positive mindset" to make you doubt yourself or avoid supporting you emotionally, or even to bypass your boundaries and control you.

What counts as toxic behavior? ›

The toxic traits of a toxic person include unsupportive and unpleasant behavior, being manipulative, judgmental, controlling, and self-centered. Such people can be the cause of various negative feelings and emotions that you may be experiencing like depression, anxiousness, worthlessness, and unhappiness.

Can you be too positive? ›

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.

› toxic-positivity-in-psych... ›

Don't worry, be happy. This and other well-intentioned phrases can be harmful. We discuss how best to avoid toxic positivity in psychology.

What counts as toxic behavior? ›

The toxic traits of a toxic person include unsupportive and unpleasant behavior, being manipulative, judgmental, controlling, and self-centered. Such people can be the cause of various negative feelings and emotions that you may be experiencing like depression, anxiousness, worthlessness, and unhappiness.

What qualifies someone as toxic? ›

A toxic person is anyone whose behavior adds negativity and upset to your life. Many times, people who are toxic are dealing with their own stresses and traumas. To do this, they act in ways that don't present them in the best light and usually upset others along the way.

What are examples of toxic behavior? ›

Signs you're in a toxic situation with someone
  • They gaslight or lie to you. ...
  • They don't apologize properly. ...
  • They don't understand how their behavior makes others feel. ...
  • They think they are superior to others. ...
  • They see themselves as a victim of their own behavior. ...
  • People can't change their toxic personality traits.
12 Jan 2022

What is an example of being toxic? ›

They'll manipulate.

Toxic people have a way of sending out the vibe that you owe them something. They also have a way of taking from you or doing something that hurts you, then maintaining they were doing it all for you. This is particularly common in workplaces or relationships where the balance of power is out.

What is the most toxic personality trait? ›

Controlling. One of the most dangerous traits of a toxic person is controlling behavior. They may try to restrict you from contacting your friends or family, or limit resources like transportation or access to money to restrict your ability to interact with the world around you.

What are the three types of toxic? ›

There are generally three types of toxic entities; chemical, biological, and physical. Chemicals include inorganic substances such as lead, hydrofluoric acid, and chlorine gas, organic compounds such as methyl alcohol, most medications, and poisons from living things.

What is a toxic message? ›

Toxic text messages are texts that drain you physically and mentally while affecting the overall health of your relationship. These texts demand you to act or behave in a certain way that is unnatural and only satisfies your partner's insecurities.

Do toxic people change? ›

If you've addressed toxic behavior with the person exhibiting it and they have taken it to heart, it's possible for toxic people to change. “Toxic people can absolutely change,” Kennedy says, “however they must see their part in the problem before they are likely to find the motivation to do so.”

Why do people become toxic? ›

'Toxic' people feel an unconscious need to bring others down to boost their own feelings of self-worth. They're usually completely unaware of their unconscious need to hurt others and ignorant of the fact that they do that because they don't feel good about themselves.

Are Toxic people born or made? ›

This doesn't mean you have to interact with them, but people aren't born “toxic” and generally get that way from observing such behavior in the home as a child or experiencing abuse. Setting healthy relationship boundaries with toxic people is essential, although it can be very challenging.

Why do Toxic People blame others? ›

As their self-esteem dropped, they find themselves looking for reasons to pull others down with them. Some feel that doing so would elevate how they felt about themselves. Unfortunately, this doesn't work and ultimately lead to worse feelings after the blaming game ends.

What is a toxic friendship? ›

“Toxic friendships happen when one person is being emotionally harmed or used by another, making the relationship more of a burden than support,” says Suzanne Degges-White, author of Toxic Friendships. A bad friendship can increase your blood pressure, lower your immunity, and affect your mental health.

How can you tell if a woman is toxic? ›

All the same, you could notice some of these signs in yourself, your partner, or the relationship itself.
  1. Lack of support. ...
  2. Toxic communication. ...
  3. Envy or jealousy. ...
  4. Controlling behaviors. ...
  5. Resentment. ...
  6. Dishonesty. ...
  7. Patterns of disrespect. ...
  8. Negative financial behaviors.

When should you stay away from someone? ›

Signs you should stay away from someone include feeling bad about yourself, making poor choices when you're with this person, and feeling controlled. Having no respect for your boundaries is another sign you should stay away from them.

How do you treat toxic people? ›

Read on for tips on how to respond to this type of behavior.
  1. Avoid playing into their reality. ...
  2. Don't get drawn in. ...
  3. Pay attention to how they make you feel. ...
  4. Talk to them about their behavior. ...
  5. Put yourself first. ...
  6. Offer compassion, but don't try to fix them. ...
  7. Say no (and walk away) ...
  8. Remember, you aren't at fault.
20 Nov 2019

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1. The Shadow Of Toxic Positivity
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2. 5 Ways Positivity Can Hurt Your Mental Health
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3. 4 Types of Toxic Positivity + How to Respond
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4. Toxic Positivity: Don't Always Look on the Bright Side
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5. Toxic Positivity: Why Positive Vibes are Ruining You
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6. Toxic Positivity | Mental Health Lessons | RTÉ Player Original
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