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, but 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
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.
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 experiencing domestic violence or in some 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?
- Chiu, A. (2020, Aug. 19). Time to ditch ‘toxic positivity,’ experts say: ‘It’s okay not to be okay’. The Washington Post.
- Halberstam, J. (2011). The queer art of failure. Duke University Press.
- Lecompte-Van Poucke, M. (2022). ‘You got this!’: A critical discourse analysis of toxic positivity as a discursive construct on Facebook. Applied Corpus Linguistics, 2(1), 100015.
- Wood, J. V., Elaine Perunovic, W. Q., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others. Psychological Science, 20(7), 860-866.