10 Ways Toxic Positivity Hurts Your Emotional Landscape. How To Avoid It?

— Researched and reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy.

Toxic positivity is also known as forced positivity, delusional positivity, and fake positivity. This artificial culture has harmfully ingrained itself into society’s fabric.

The “just-think-positive” brigade has fed the minds of millions with the idea that you can get rich and happy by merely wishing for it. So, if you’re totally optimistic and hopeful, you won’t need to put in the work to get success.

Only issue: When you fail to get your pot of riches or joy from the universe, ‘the secret’ camp will convince you it was your fault. You failed to shake off the negativity holding you back.

The truth is, positive thinking alone does not pay the bill or fill the stomach. It’s not making us happier; in fact, it’s making us miserable.

Let’s dive into the truth behind toxic positivity, and learn how to avoid the positivity trap, support each other, and live more fulfilling lives.

What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity is the belief that people should have a positive attitude no matter how risky or difficult their circumstances. It is a flawed approach to emotional regulation. It involves rejecting negative emotions and responding to suffering with false assurances rather than empathy.

The Pitfalls of Toxic Positivity and Unrealistic Happiness Ideals | Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar | HSA

10 Ways Toxic Positivity Hurts Your Emotional Landscape

Here are some ways that toxic positivity is harming your happiness, success, and relationships:

1. Making You Dismiss Difficult Emotions

Relentless optimism can make you dismiss your own feelings, leading to emotional unhealthiness.

For example, if you’re going through a breakup by ghosting, being told to “just move on” can make you feel like your pain and need for closure isn’t valid.

This approach cancels out difficult emotions, which you must experience as a process of grief, which is essential for mental well-being.

So, ironically, the constant pressure to banish negative emotions is making us feel even more unhappy.

2. Making You Ignore Relationship Issues

Toxic positivity can cause you to overlook real problems in your relationships, leading to long-term damage.

Imagine your partner avoids discussing conflicts and says, “Let’s just focus on the good times.”

This can result in unresolved issues and resentment. Ignoring contentious issues in favor of positivity can erode the relationship over time.

3. Forcing You Into Emotional Isolation

Isolation and loneliness are difficult states that all of us experience at some point in our lives.

But being told to keep a brave face in when lonely can make you less likely to share your pains, seek emotional support, and do things that are healthy, leaving you feeling isolated and unsupported.

The pressure to smile through adversity can make you feel shame or guilt, and then less likely to reach out for professional help.

4. Making You Feel Unsupported In Grief

When you’re told to “move on” from a loss, it can make you feel like your grief isn’t valid, adding to your emotional burden.

Such reminders can make a bereaved person feel that others are indifferent to their loss. This perceived lack of emotional support can prolong the grieving process and make recovery more challenging.

It can also lead to feelings of being abandoned, as you may start to believe that your grief is a burden to others.

5. Adding To Your Emotional Strain

Being advised to focus on the “bright side” and keep focusing on the “light at the end of the tunnel” when you’re struggling can actually make your emotional pain worse, not better.

This kind of toxic positivity can create a cycle where you feel pressured to appear okay, even when you’re not.

Telling people to focus on positive thinking and a bright future doesn’t relieve their suffering; it adds to it.

It often leads to increased stress and anxiety, as you may feel like you’re failing at “being positive.”

6. Making You Feel Like A Failure For Being Human

We have to feel all emotions. The basic premise is that we are all humans and we are prone to make mistakes, feel sad and bad, and have a lot of emotions that are anything but “uppity.”

Sadly, forced positivity can make you suppress your pessimistic and gloomy feelings, leading you to feel like you’re failing and out of control when you can’t maintain constant happiness.

The right way to deal with unpleasant emotions is to experience them and learn how to cope with them.

7. Feeling “Unbelonged” When You Need Support

When you’re told to find the silver lining in your problems, it can make you feel misunderstood and “unbelonged,” even if the person meant well.

Phrases like “You have so much to be thankful for” can leave you feeling worse off than before.

This sense of not belonging is a great burden to carry. It can discourage you from seeking the emotional support you actually need, perpetuating a cycle of isolation.

“Unbelonging” can have long-term negative effects on mental health, including increased risk of depression and anxiety.

Moreover, research indicates that social support is a predictor of emotional adjustment to stressful life events (Monroe and Steiner, 1986), and it acts as a protective moderator between the experience of stressful life events and depression (Windle, 1992).

8. Reinforcing Social Inequality

Phrases that perpetuate stereotypes, like “strong Black woman,” “model minority,” and “man up,” can contribute to broader issues of social inequality.

These phrases not only marginalize individuals but also perpetuate harmful societal norms. They build loaded expectations that often lay the groundwork for racism and classism.

For instance, the “model minority” stereotype can put undue pressure on certain ethnic groups to conform to an unrealistic standard of success, thereby masking systemic issues.

We have seen that these kinds of toxic positivity are related to mental health disparities among different social groups.

9. Failing You in Health Crises

Being told to “stay positive” during a health crisis can make you feel isolated and misunderstood, rather than supported.

Positive messages don’t improve the outcome of a terrible disease and can be damaging, especially for vulnerable people.

10. Amplifying Emotional Pain During Tragedy

Telling someone to “look on the bright side” during a tragedy can be not just insensitive but emotionally damaging.

Often, there is no positive side to a devastating event, and such advice can make the person feel even worse.

Curiosity, understanding, validation, and empathy are the four vital aspects of supporting and assisting people in their times of need.

How to avoid and handle toxic positivity?

how to avoid toxic positivity trap

1. Offer Genuine Support Instead of Toxic Positivity

To genuinely support someone, focus on four key elements: curiosity, understanding, validation, and empathy.

Active listening, nodding, and maintaining eye contact can make the other person feel heard. Open-ended questions like “Can you tell me more about this?” can deepen the conversation.

Empathetic responses like “I’m sorry you’re going through this” validate their feelings without necessarily agreeing with their perspective.

2. Know When To Ignore Positivity And Consult A Therapist

If you encounter toxic positivity, it’s often best to consult a mental health professional rather than relying on well-meaning but misguided advice.

A trained therapist can provide the emotional support and coping strategies you need.

3. Embrace Negative Emotions As A Natural Part of Life

Life isn’t always positive, and that’s okay. Suppressing negative emotions can actually increase your stress levels and exacerbate your problems.

Acknowledge your feelings instead of avoiding them.

4. Identify & Label Your Challenging Emotions

Labeling the emotion can be the first step in effectively dealing with it.

When you feel a negative emotion, don’t run from it. Identify what you’re feeling—is it fear, anger, or something else?

By giving your emotion a name, you create a mental distance that allows you to view it more objectively. This can be a powerful tool for understanding its root cause and how best to manage it.

5. Use Mindfulness To Process Negative Emotions

Once you’ve identified your emotion, let yourself feel it fully. Your body needs to go through the entire cycle of the emotion—rising, peaking, and falling.

Mindful breathing and even crying can help you process these feelings.

6. Practice Radical Acceptance To Counter Toxic Positivity

Another effective strategy is radical acceptance, or “amor fati,” which means loving your fate. Accept your current situation for what it is, even if you don’t like it.

This acceptance can be liberating, as it removes the need to sugarcoat or deny reality.

7. Maintaining Authentic Connections

To counteract the isolating effects of toxic positivity, focus on building genuine relationships where all emotions are welcome.

Authentic connections thrive when you can share your true feelings without the fear of being dismissed or invalidated.

Origins of Toxic Positivity

The concept of positive thinking originated in 19th-century America with Phineas Quimby, a clockmaker interested in mentalism. He argued that physical illness stemmed from negative beliefs, laying the foundation for the “New Thought” movement.

“Thus man is a mere lump of clay in the hands of blind guides and whatever they say to the people they believe. Their beliefs disturb their minds and the doctors sow the seed of disease which they nurse till it grows to a belief, then comes the misery.” — P. P. Quimby

By the 1930s, positive thinking had become synonymous with power and success.

It was helped by the fact that thinking positively does not come to us naturally as humans are naturally wired for pessimism as a survival mechanism.

So, cultural norms started pushing people towards relentless positivity from a young age. Kids were taught that homes and schools are places to “be happy,” and not express negative emotions.

Today, positive thinking is a multibillion-dollar industry. Sadly, despite the money and time spent, it hasn’t necessarily made us happier. Rather, it has given rise to a “disbalance” in our emotional well-being.

Psychologist Barbara Ehrenreich coined the term “toxic positivity” in her NYT bestselling book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Ehrenreich warns against getting too caught up in happiness.

Why constant positivity is not always helpful?

The pressure to be constantly positive deludes people into believing that their prime goal in life is to be happy.

But it is impractical to keep a positive attitude in the face of adversity. Emotional upheavals and negative emotions are unavoidable in life. Suffering is a part of a wholesome life.

To be happy in the present, we get told to always expect positive results, to seek the bright side of every event, and to replace our gloomy thoughts and negative feelings with positivity. Sadly, however, doing so often makes us feel even more stressed and unhappy.

Forced positivity can get people trapped in a cycle of shame. When they feel sad, they are urged to “look on the bright side” or remind themselves to be more positive. In either case, it makes the sad person feel ashamed for being sad.

Please reach out to your mental health counselor if you feel guilty about your sadness.

• You’d love to check this out: How To Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve And Calm Down

FAQs

  1. What “not” to say to a struggling person?

    When someone is struggling, the last thing they need to hear is ‘be positive.’ Here are a few phrases to avoid:
    • “Just snap out of it.”
    • “Others have it worse.”
    • “You’ll get over it soon.”
    • “This too shall pass.”
    • “It’s all in your head.”
    • “You’re overreacting.”
    • “Everything happens for a reason.”
    • “Try to be grateful for what you have.”

    These phrases are not only dismissive but can actually make the person feel worse. They minimize the individual’s experience and can make them feel as if their struggles aren’t valid.

  2. What can you say to a struggling person?

    When someone is struggling, try to validate their experience and offer genuine support. Here are some phrases that can be helpful and comforting:
    • “I’m here for you.”
    • “How can I support you?”
    • “It’s okay to feel this way.”
    • “You’re not alone.”
    • “Would you like to talk about it?”
    • “Take all the time you need.”
    • “Your feelings are valid.”
    • “I can’t imagine how tough this is, but I’m glad you told me.”

    These phrases can create a safe space for the struggling person to express themselves without judgment. They also open the door for deeper communication and let them guide you on how best to support them.

  3. Why constant positivity is not always helpful?

    Constant positivity isn’t always helpful because it sets unrealistic expectations for perpetual happiness. This toxic mindset is impractical and harmful when facing life’s inevitable ups and downs.

    Forced positivity can increase stress and unhappiness, and trap people in a cycle of shame, making them feel guilty for experiencing natural, negative emotions.

    If you find yourself pressured to maintain a positive outlook, consider consulting a mental health counselor for more nuanced emotional management strategies.

Final Words

Forcing yourself or someone else to “think positive” in all circumstances is more harmful than helpful.

Stop accepting toxic positivity and instead, help spread the good message that avoiding negativity can lead to loneliness, guilt, shame, depression, and low self-esteem.

self-esteem - don't take advice

While at it, also focus on living a value-driven life. Decide what values are important to you and live by them. It will eventually lead to a more satisfying life.


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