Toxic Positivity – What Is It & How To Avoid It

You’ve probably heard the song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” And while it’s a lovely little tune, the sentiment actually describes toxic positivity perfectly. But what exactly does it mean?

It’s the idea that someone should only have positive thoughts and all negative ones (as well as stress) should be immediately pushed out. This can be from the person experiencing the emotions or from someone giving advice (usually during the worst time possible).

Some examples include:

  • Look on the bright side!
  • It could be worse!
  • Good vibes only!
  • Everything happens for a reason
  • Look for the silver lining.
  • If I can do it, so can you!
  • “Let Me Know If You Need Anything”
  • Everything will work out in the end.
  • Failure is not an option.
  • Don’t think about it, stay positive!
  • “What Doesn’t Kill You Only Makes You Stronger”

Why It’s Toxic Positivity

Humans feel a wide range of emotions – including negative ones. We feel stress and anxiety, anger, and grief. And believe it or not, these are important for our wellbeing and processing speed.

  • Anger tells us there is injustice or mistreatment.
  • Guilt signals us we might have done something wrong.
  • Stress lets us know there are red flags we need to address.
  • Sadness shows us the importance of something we’ve lost.

Without these emotions, we can’t take the actions that are associated with them. We can’t heal or become better. Putting on a brave, happy face creates a barrier between us and the world – when really, we need someone to wrap their arms around us and offer help.

Or if someone is going through a hard time and another person offers a toxic positivity phrase, they’ve completely demeaned and minimalized what that person is going through. This can have several other damaging effects like stopping communication altogether or withdrawing from people and not dealing with their emotions.

Toxic positivity can also have deadly repercussions.

For example, if someone is in an abusive relationship and a family member says, “It could be worse, at least he provides for you. Just focus on the silver lining – you have a roof over your head. Other people have had it harder.”

This is the epitome of toxic positivity. The push to avoid all negatives encourages someone to stay in a dangerous environment could be a problem with brain function.

Scientific Studies

Campbell-Sills, Barlow, Brown, and Hofmann (2006)

In their study, 60 people with anxiety or mood disorders were asked to suppress or accept their feelings while watching an emotional film.

The researchers recorded the subjects’ distress, heart rate, skin conductance level, and respiratory sinus arrhythmia before, during, and after the film. Those who had to suppress their feelings had higher heart rates after the movie.

Wood, Perunovic, and Lee (2009)

Three interrelated studies were done on people with low self-esteem. They wanted to see if positive self-statements could affect the subjects. However, the results ended up quite negative.

“Using the self-comparison theory (Talaifar & Swann, 2020) as a lens, positive self-statements may contradict an individual’s self-view, causing the individual to reject the statement or hold onto their original preconception of themselves.”

How to Be Truly Supportive

Empathy is essential to help anyone going through a hard time. Understand and acknowledge what they’re going through and offer real help (if you can). Here are some examples of better things you can say…

  • “Describe what you’re feeling, I’m listening.”
  • “I see that you’re really stressed, anything I can do?”
  • “Failure is a part of growth and success.”
  • “This is really hard, I’m thinking of you.”
  • “I’m here for you both good and bad.”
  • “Everyone’s story, abilities, and limitations are different, and that’s okay.
  • “I see you. I’m here for you.”
  • “Suffering is a part of life, you are not alone.”
  • “Sometimes we can draw the short straw in life. How can I support you during this hard time?”
  • “That sucks. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”

Here are some more examples of things you should or should not do…

  • Don’t over-compliment on how someone’s lost weight. It highlights that they were overweight before and might hit their self-esteem.
  • Don’t only post perfect photos on social media.
  • Do become more comfortable with dealing with negative emotions.
  • Don’t make someone else’s job sound easier than yours.
  • Don’t one-up another person’s pain, show respect.
  • Don’t tell someone to just smile or laugh it off.
  • Do offer real help (even if it’s something small).
  • Don’t pretend there’s nothing wrong.
  • Do ask before giving physical consolation.

Toxic Positivity Conclusion

It’s a tricky thing. Many of us do this without even realizing it. And if you’ve done it in the past, use it as motivation to learn new ways to be a better, more empathetic person. It might take some time to break old, bad habits, but that’s okay!