Toxic Positivity: What It Is and Why It’s Not Helpful

Toxic positivity: what it is and why it's not helpful - graphics of rainbows and unicorns

Positivity can be a good thing, but toxic positivity not so much. So, what’s the difference? I’d say that positivity is about finding the good that exists despite the bad, while toxic positivity is pretending that the bad can’t/doesn’t exist or trying not to allow it to exist.

The element of invalidation is another thing that separates good positivity from toxic positivity. Invalidating people’s feelings just because they’re not bursting with joy is not helpful.

Toxic positivity may sound like:

  • “Just think positive.”
  • “Everything will be okay.”
  • “Good vibes only.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “Look on the bright side!”
  • “It could be worse.” As in, you’re not in ICU on a ventilator right now, so whatever your problem is, it could be worse. Or there are starving children in Africa, so your first-world problems don’t matter.

A psychologist interviewed by the Washington Post likened toxic positivity to trying to shove ice cream in someone’s face when they don’t want ice cream; ice cream is good, bur not when you start assaulting people with it.

A research perspective

While the term toxic positivity is fairly recent, the concept of unrealistic optimism has appeared in psychological research over the last several decades. According to a paper by Lecompte-Van Poucke (2022), the term toxic positivity was first used by Jack Halberstam in his 2011 book The Queer Art of Failure. In it, he wrote, “While failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment, and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life.” He added, “the ideology of positive thinking insists that success depends only upon working hard and failure is always of your own doing.”

Lecompte-Van Poucke described “toxic or forced positive discourse [as] discourse imbued with an overly exaggerated positive outlook on the world.” She conducted an analysis of forced positive discourse on social networking sites that focused on endometriosis, and she identified several different ways in which it tended to show up.

Thought-terminating clichés are a common feature of forced positive discourse. If someone with endometriosis was to express sorrow over being unable to have children, a thought-terminating cliché would be something like “don’t lose hope, you can still get pregnant.” Such a response shuts down the first person’s thoughts and feelings and offers no evidence to support the assertion being made.

Forced positivity may also show up as person B offering a solution to person A’s problem when they’re not in a position to actually understand the problem or know what the solution is. In invisible illness communities, there’s also the idea of disability=superpower, “I managed so you can too”, or “I had it worse so what you’re dealing with isn’t a big deal.”

Criticism of toxic positivity

Barbara Ehrenreich

In her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, Barbara Ehrenreich offered the example of the pink fluffy goodness of breast cancer awareness month. She wrote, “in the seamless world of breast cancer culture… cheerfulness is required, dissent a kind of treason.” Meanwhile, people living with metastatic breast cancer have a disease that will kill them unless something else beats it to the punch.

Brené Brown and Susan David

In an episode of her Dare to Lead podcast, Brené Brown interviewed Susan David, the author of Emotional Agility, on the topic of toxic positivity. Brown introduced the episode by saying that they were going to “call bullshit together on the whole notion of toxic positivity, that everything is great and that we can just take all of our hard emotions, stuff them away and put up a really pretty quote card on Instagram and it’s all going to be good.”

According to David, “There is no research supporting the idea that false positivity — in other words, a denial of our experience — is helpful to us as human beings.” She pointed out that the “just be positive” narrative holds individuals to be fully responsible for whether they succeed or not, ignoring the influence of systemic factors.

David also called out the idea of needing to be positive because it will manifest your reality, saying “No, these difficult thoughts, emotions and stories are normal. They’re part of the way that we as human beings are actually built, so that we can construct coherent narratives of the world and make sense of the world.”

It could always be worse

Some variation of “it could be worse” is a common part of the toxic positivity narrative. But how is that anything other than just invalidating?

There is no officially designated worst possible human problem. So really, it could always be worse. By the same token, it could always be better. So what? It’s not a competition where only the shittiest problem gets to wear the shit crown, and everyone else has to be happy until the end of time. The fact that someone else has it worse does not make your own problem any less shitty, nor does it make you less entitled to feel shitty about your shitty problem.

Suppression doesn’t work

Trying to suppress emotions because we don’t like them or don’t think we’re entitled to feel them really doesn’t work very well. Neither does trying to control your thoughts. When you try to build mental dams to try to resist uncomfortable inner experiences and keep them contained, they can’t just trickle off on their own, so they build up until they start overflowing your dams.

Instead, what if you were to just allow those feelings and thoughts to be there? Make room for them, allow them to do their unhappy dance, and then let them ride off into the sunset. If you start getting the guest bedroom set up so the negative feelings can have a more permanent home, that’s probably not so good. But allowing yourself to feel the feels in the moment is a good thing.

If you expect to feel happy all the time, and then you don’t because that’s simply not possible, that’s likely to stir up meta-emotions (emotions about other emotions) like disappointment or guilt. Those meta-emotions can end up making you feel even worse. Acceptance of whatever emotions are present, on the other hand, is about allowing difficult emotions to just come and go in their own time without generating reactions that make them snowball.

Why should you only have positive feels?

We have a whole wide range of emotions, and they exist for a reason. If one of my guinea pigs dies, I don’t want to feel happy; I want to feel sad, because that’s the emotion that’s the right fit when you lose someone/something you love. We shouldn’t have to limit our emotional repertoire to what’s comfortable and easy.

Negative feels can also co-exist with positive feels. You can be grateful for what you do have or the fact that your problem isn’t worse than it is, but gratitude doesn’t preclude having negative feelings at the same time. We’re complex creatures, not amoebae, and we can have positive and negative going on at the same time.

Even calling emotions negative or positive suggests that some emotions are wrong and some are right. Emotions aren’t good/bad or right/wrong; they just are. Some are a whole lot less comfortable than others, but part of being alive is being uncomfortable sometimes.

Self-affirmations

Part of the whole positivity shebang is that we’re supposed to go hog wild with over the top self-affirmations. Here are a few mentioned by the Huffington Post, followed by my thoughts in italics:

  • “Today, I am brimming with energy and overflowing with joy.” (Except you’re very much not if chronic illness has left you exhausted and barely able to haul yourself out of bed.)
  • “My body is healthy; my mind is brilliant; my soul is tranquil.” (Try telling that to someone who’s got COVID, is hacking up a lung, and can barely breathe)
  • “My ability to conquer my challenges is limitless; my potential to succeed is infinite.” (I’m sorry, but this just isn’t true for anyone. We all have limits; that’s part of being human.)
  • “Everything that is happening now is happening for my ultimate good.” (Try telling that to someone who’s in a domestic violence or other abusive situation.)
  • “My obstacles are moving out of my way; my path is carved towards greatness.” (Unless you’re Moses and God is parting the Red Sea for you, obstacles probably aren’t just leaping out of your way.)

Clearly I don’t buy the rainbows and unicorns affirmations thing, but do they work for other people?

Not so much, it turns out. A study by Wood and colleagues showed that repeating über-positive affirmations can have a small benefit for people who already have high self-esteem. For people with low self-esteem, though, repeating such affirmations actually tends to make them feel worse.

You don’t need to be positive

I say fuck it to the whole toxic positivity narrative. If people want to have rainbows and unicorns prancing around in their heads, then all the power to them. But don’t jab other people with those unicorn horns. It’s my party and I’ll be negative if I want to.

What are your thoughts on toxic positivity and whether it helps or harms?

References

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71 thoughts on “Toxic Positivity: What It Is and Why It’s Not Helpful”

  1. Toxic positivity is something that can really drive me nuts. I think the it could be worse thing is particularly toxic, not only because there’s no officially designated worst possible human problem and because everyone tends to think about their own struggles as the worst because they’re right in the middle of them, but also because it’s all so ridiculously subjective. I remember how it really struck me just how subjective it is when Mio of Mentally Ill in America wrote a post quite a while back about how someone told him that blind people have it a lot worse than he does having a mental illness. Well, I’ve been in both of these shoes for all of my life (I didn’t know about mental illness stuff for a long time or didn’t want to accept it really but I’m pretty sure that something has always been going on there for me) and I’d say overall the mental illness ones are less comfortable. And then I do realise that someone who’s been mentally ill for all/most of their life but lost their sight in, say, middle age, can think totally inversely. So yeah, it’s a really ridiculous thing to tell people that they could have it worse, ’cause what if not and the thing they’re just experiencing is the worst they could ever imagine experiencing or the worst that will have ever happened to them during their life?
    I don’t really get affirmations like that at all and their purpose, they sound like someone’s trying to inflate their ego to some pretty pathological size, or just plain lying to themselves. I can totally see how they could make someone with low self-esteem feel more awful. For someone with low self-esteem and some distance to themselves like me, they only make me laugh and I could never say such things to myself with a straight face. 😀

    1. I guess some people like to lie to themselves. I could stick post-it ntoes saying everybody loves me in every room of my home, but that’s not magically going to make it true.

  2. The Disney movie “Inside Out” is about this topic. Every hospital we’ve been in shows this movie.

    We don’t appreciate denying emotions. We don’t appreciate forcing one’s attitude on others. At the same time, we think life is awful so if someone chooses to try this on their own, enjoy. But if you lose the ability to feel and to relate to other people, enjoy your positively alone life

    Nonviolent Communication views feelings as those associated with met needs and those associated with unmet needs

  3. I’ve been meaning to pick up a copy of Bright-Sided for a while but still haven’t so thank you for the reminder.

    I really do like the term toxic positivity. I find a little dose of positivity is a good thing, of course. But positivity shoved down our throats, inane comments about positive thoughts in a dire situation and all the rest of it are dangerous. It’s fake, it adds pressure and it’s not realistic. Then again, I’m a realistic pessimist (as my ex liked to say), so positivity isn’t really my strong point.

    I’ve had someone say to me “at least you don’t have cancer” (a bit like the “it could always be worse” thing). It does not feel pleasant having someone else say that, especially when you never complained about anything to that person and simply stated facts. But I do say it about my own situation that it could be worse because in a way it’s a reminder for me that as bad as I feel, as desperate as I get and feel I can’t keep going, I know it could be worse. But to tell others in an advisory capacity to think of how it could be worse or to think of others worse off than you is definitely invalidating. It’s insulting. Perspective is good, but judgemental slights are not.

    It’s weird because not long ago it felt like the real social toxicity was in the form of the productivity pressure. You have to work yourself into the ground, never stopping, never getting a break, and you’re not worthy unless you’re ill with stress and exhaustion. This now mingles with the positive vibes, the focus on mental wellness and it’s all a bit of a consuming dichotomy. Neither is healthy, neither is balanced, neither is realistic.

    Another brilliant look at an important concept, Ashley. You really are amazing at this. xx

    1. Thanks, lovely! 💕

      I was looking at LinkedIn today and saw a post by someone that bought into the toxic producitivity thing. She was saying that people should hustle and not do “fluffy” self-care things like going for walks. 🙄

      Anyone who says “at least you don’t have cancer” needs to be bopped over the head.

  4. Everything comes down to an individual’s perspective on how best to deal, take, give, and award positivity.

    When a person is feeling tip-top, positivity is still positivity; however, it is received.

    When a person is not, everything uttered by another human being, upbeat, inspirational or motivational, will not be accepted as anything other than toxic.

    People take on board what they want to, how they want and when they want to.

    You can motivate another till your snot freezes over in hell, but if they don’t want to know it and receive it and treat it and everything anyone says like lousy religion, then nothing matters, does it?

    It’s all perspective, toxic or not.

    I once knew someone irrelevant to how her life was. She wanted to be depressed. She wanted to be down. She wanted nothing but toxicity in her life because that is how she wanted to see her life.

    We are who we are. We are who we allow ourselves to be. It’s not something that we are born with. It’s how we allow ourselves to believe or not believe in our lives.

    Sometimes some people want to be anything other than cheerful, bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed, but many things can contribute to how a person receives and perceives themself to be, from low esteem to a lack of confidence to no self-belief. The balance to positivity is knowing what confidence is and what is blatant cockiness. Everyone can be inspired, but they must want to see the inspiration as motivational and not just as negative toxics.

    1. “Till your snot freezes over in hell” – that’s a good line!

      I don’t think motivating is really something that can be done to another person, as in the end, motivation has to come from within.

  5. Oh my goodness! So many great things in this post! I wrote a post not too long ago about Toxic Positivity and how I imposed it on to others just because I felt that remaining positive about your experience gives you a better perspective of it. I even impose it onto my students! But I am starting to realize that it may not be benefitting everyone the way I felt it had benefitted me. I still try to see the positive side of negative things; however, I don’t beat myself up with it like I used to. I learned to accept the negative feelings as necessary before moving onto the positivity. But I have to admit that positive self-talk, positive affirmations, and looking at the “brighter side” of negative situations were some of the things I consistently did that helped me out of many depressive episodes.
    I love what you wrote: “We have a whole wide range of emotions, and they exist for a reason.” YES! I have to keep reminding myself of that. Sometimes, we just need to go through the emotion because it will provide us with what we need in the moment to overcome the hardship before moving on. Thanks for writing this. Very interesting topic.

    1. I think that element of not beating yourself up is huge. If you can find the positive without beating yourself up when the negative comes peeking through, that’s a good thing.

  6. Thanks for the read. I liked the ice cream metaphor – very visual. I am a proponent of mixed emotions which allow the bad and the good. When I was hospitalized about 15 years ago the discussion leaders did not seem to acknowledge mixed states which is largely my bag. I also am one of these people who subscribes to fake it til you make it — may not be particularly effective if I do not recognize the bad with the good during those moments. But I try to…..

  7. Thank you so much for sharing this post. I never looked at positivity this way before. I need to before I become one of those toxic people.

  8. It is better to be positive, in a sense to find a positive side in every situation, but still be aware of negative side, so that we can manage with the problem. Act on it and move on 👌

  9. Oh man I hate toxic positivity! Being positive can be good, but nobody can be positive all of the time, some people would do well to remember that. X

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