I still remember when, sharing a bad experience with a friend, she cut me off and said, “Just be grateful for everything you have. It’ll get better!” I replied that of course I was grateful for what I have, but I was mourning the loss of something important in that moment. And yes, “it”—as in my life or situation—would get better, but no, what had happened to me was not good, it itself would not get better, and it was over. Couldn’t she see that?
She could not, and continued to bombard me with bright and happy, meme-worthy sayings, like, “look on the bright side!” and “it could be worse,” until I got frustrated enough that I ended the conversation. In that moment, I had wanted to be with my negative emotions, not be told to get over them, ignore them, or bottle them up.
But my friend had another tactic in mind: toxic positivity. Yes, toxic positivity is a very real thing!
“Toxic positivity contributes to ‘all or nothing’ thinking, which is a type of distorted assumption that things have to be either all good or all bad,” said Alice Rizzi, a NYC therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “No one is happy 100% of the time, nor should they be. Humans are multi-faceted and experience complex emotional states.”
As wonderful as looking on the bright side twenty-four hours a day might sound at first, it’s actually detrimental to our mental health. While hope and positivity are important, like everything else, there must be a balance. Here is some insight from our community of practitioners about toxic positivity, its impact on our mental health, and what we can do instead.
You may be be asking, what is the definition of toxic positivity? Shannon Gunnip, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member defines toxic positivity as "the mistaken belief that only ‘good’ or ‘happy’ emotions are acceptable to experience, and that keeping a positive attitude will solve all or most problems, including mental or physical health issues.”
“While it's true that positive self-talk can improve mental health and self esteem, it is not healthy or possible to deny all uncomfortable emotions,” she said. “Not unlike toxic masculinity, toxic positivity deems certain qualities or feelings as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable,’ and denies a person the experience of a full range of human emotions by discouraging the expression of the ‘bad’ or ‘unacceptable.’”
But the person is just trying to be positive! Maybe you’re sad or mad and they’re just trying to get you to look on the bright side or give you a pep talk. How bad can that possibly be?
“Toxic positivity when you're trying to honor your true feelings is like telling someone you have a nut allergy and them eating a Reese's Cup in front of you while they tell you how to live fearlessly,” said Joanne Davies, a MyWellbeing community member who offers coaching and hypnosis. “Toxic positivity when you're seeking help is like showing a doctor your open wound and having them sprinkle it with glitter.”
That’s right: it’s painful to have your feelings invalidated and your pain and experience diminished. And not only does toxic positivity invalidate your emotional state, it also increases secondary emotions: you might end up feeling ashamed of being sad or embarrassed about being afraid or angry.
“Toxic positivity is toxic!” said Beatty Cohan, a NYC therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “To deny and avoid acknowledging and expressing our authentic negative emotions, including fear, disappointment, anger, betrayal, etc. keeps us in a world of illusion and fantasy and inevitably harms our physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing.”
“Because toxic positivity discourages and denies a full expression of human emotion by labeling certain feelings as ‘bad’ or ‘unacceptable,’ people subscribing to this belief may suppress their negative or uncomfortable emotions,” said Shannon.
“When unpleasant feelings arise, like grief, sadness, or even anger, rather than non-judgmentally sitting with these emotions and allowing them to run their course, folks buying into the notion of toxic positivity may end up feeling even more unpleasant feelings,” she said. “We may judge ourselves for experiencing the ‘bad’ feeling in the first place, or believe that something is wrong with us that keeping a positive attitude is so difficult.”
This can have a huge impact, compounding our existing negative emotions, causing us to ignore what is real for us and training ourselves to not speak truthfully when we are hurt, angry, or scared.
“Toxic positivity cheapens the human experience and makes us feel invalid for falling into ‘the wrong’ binary state,” said Alice. “It can bring on shame that you are ‘flawed’ or ‘broken’ if you don't happen to think positive thoughts all the time (which is impossible, by the way—we're just not hard wired that way).”
Just because we want to feel our negative emotions doesn’t mean we have to dwell on them forever. But there are healthy ways to cope and start to move forward without turning to toxic positivity.
“Practicing mindfulness can help you identify and respond to how you're feeling in a healthy, compassionate way,” said Alice. “Acknowledging that something is there and naming what it is validates your experience. If you can admit that you are feeling an emotion, whether it's pleasant or uncomfortable, you can decide how to respond to it (e.g., taking a tap when tired or journaling when frustrated).”
“Alternatively, toxic positivity will have you believe that you ‘shouldn't’ feel uncomfortable and that something is wrong with you if you do,” she said. “This experience dismisses your very real feelings that may be trying to tell you something important. Also, being human is uncomfortable. It is much more the ‘default state’ than happiness ever was.”
If someone is trying to “help” you with toxic positivity, try to explain your needs to them if you have the capacity to do so. Try saying something like:
It can be really hard to speak your truth to someone when you are already in pain. Hopefully, the other person realizes what they’re doing, listens to you, and honors your feelings. If not, it’s completely fine to take a break from that person until you’re ready.
When people tell you how they feel, more often than not they want to have their feelings validated, their problems normalized, and to feel listened to.
“Many of us hesitate to acknowledge when a loved one's situation is painful or difficult out of fear that doing so could somehow make things worse for them,” said Shannon.
Try saying things like:
“Chances are, your loved one already feels that pain and is aware that their circumstances are challenging,” Shannon said. “Refusal to acknowledge their pain by suggesting they ‘just be grateful things aren't worse’ or to ‘look on the bright side’ can be more harmful than helpful. Humans are born with the capacity for a full range of emotions and it is possible to hold space for the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ at the same time.”
Toxic positivity is an attempt to quell our negative emotions and feelings and that can have a detrimental impact on our mental health. But once we feel our emotions, it’s important to figure out what we can to move forward—something that a therapist can help with.
“My mantra is to acknowledge, address, and take steps to RESOLVE feelings that get in the way of our life and relationships,” said Beatty.
Acknowledging your negative emotions is the first step toward healing from trauma and hurt. So the next time someone tells you to look on the bright side, you can remind them that acknowledging the dark side is the first step forward.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.