Toxic Positivity: When Being Positive Isn't Actually A Positive Thing For You

It’s a great thing to be positive, but too much of a good thing can easily turn into a bad thing. This is where toxic positivity comes into the picture.

By Meghan Dillon3 min read
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The Psychology Group describes toxic positivity, saying, “The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience. Just like anything done in excess, when positivity is used to cover up or silence the human experience, it becomes toxic. By disallowing the existence of certain feelings, we fall into a state of denial and repressed emotions.” 

Toxic positivity is all about being positive no matter what, inevitably ignoring and invalidating the experience of those struggling, even yourself. Whether we like it or not, life gets hard for all of us, and no amount of positivity can change that. 

How Positivity Can Be Harmful

Though the idea of being positive all the time sounds good on paper, it’s unrealistic because life is far from perfect. We see a lot of toxic positivity in Christian circles due to the belief that God is good all of the time, but it completely invalidates the experiences of those going through a rough or traumatic time. Christian mental health counselor Kate Savage writes, “In a situation of injustice, for instance, toxic positivity can allow it to persist due to a stubborn insistence that ‘all is well and right with the world.’ Sin and darkness are real, and they should not be minimized or excused under the cloak of positivity. In this way, toxic positivity can become unwittingly complicit in the evils of the world by overlooking or ignoring the hard edges of reality.”

Savage continues, “Toxic positivity can harm people who are going through tough times. By imposing positive thinking as the only lens through which to see life, it can demand that people ultimately deny the challenges they face, and that can silence their emotions and deter them from seeking the help they may need. The outcome is that rather than being able to share their heartfelt emotions and gain support as they go through their struggles, people find that their feelings get invalidated, ignored, or simply dismissed.”

Toxic positivity can cut you off from your support system and your own internal experience. 

Savage has many great points, and those of any or no faith can take this advice. Insisting on exhibiting a positive attitude all the time not only cuts you off from your support system, but from your own internal experience. It increases internal and external feelings of division and insincerity. Rather, a healthier approach would be to be able to acknowledge your difficult situation and feel your negative emotions, without complaining or wallowing. Be open to being supported and uplifted by your support system, and then move forward with courage, resilience, and hope – even if you’re still hurting.

Abusers Thrive on Toxic Positivity

Since toxic positivity forces us to look at the bright side no matter what, it can make us ignore some serious red flags in relationships. In many abusive relationships, the abuser hooks the victim by being on their best behavior. They create the perfect relationship in the beginning so their victim will stick around when things get tough because they can’t help but hope it goes back to how it was in the early days. Abusers often use toxic positivity to gaslight their victims, and victims are likely to turn toxic positivity into a coping mechanism. 

Freelance journalist and creative nonfiction writer Lauren Krouse learned this the hard way. After leaving an abusive relationship, she discovered that she had adopted the toxic positivity mindset in her relationship, not only because her then-boyfriend believed in it, but because it helped her cope with the abuse. She made the discovery after reading a 2020 study that showed that having a "positive bias" can increase the likelihood of dismissing abuse in a relationship.

Krouse writes, “Sometimes, even the darlings of positive psychology – optimism, hope, and forgiveness – can be bad for you, the study says. A firm commitment to them, one that trumps reality, can stifle your ability to see and accept the growing danger inside your own home.”

The key phrase here is “one that trumps reality”; all unhealthy behaviors try to ignore reality or its consequences. We can only respond with a healthy attitude or the right choices if we first actually grasp reality. Having a positive outlook on life can only be healthy if the foundation is factual.

Alternatives To Toxic Positivity

Though there’s always a good chance that everything will be okay in the end, it doesn’t make the present suck any less when we’re suffering. There’s a difference between complaining and acknowledging that life can be hard and that we all struggle. Toxic positivity fails to acknowledge that humans are complex and can feel different types of emotions at once. We can be grateful for what we have while acknowledging that things aren’t okay. As someone who has struggled with depression on and off for years, I can testify that it’s possible to have a great life and experience depression at the same time, but toxic positivity makes it difficult for those who struggle with depression to receive treatment.

To be tragically optimistic is to accept the negatives yet still recognize there is meaning in our lives.

Luckily, there are alternatives to toxic positivity. Professor and counselor Suzanne Degges-White believes in replacing toxic positivity with “tragic optimism.” She writes, “Tragic optimism is situated in a position that is the polar opposite of toxic positivity. While toxic positivity is designed to pretend like negative experiences or unpleasant emotions simply do not exist, tragic optimism is all about acknowledging that there is tragedy, heartache, and sorrow in our lives. However, to be tragically optimistic is not to ignore these negative experiences, but to accept that they exist and to still recognize that there is meaning in our lives and that there is always hope to be found in life.”

The term “tragic optimism” was coined by Austrian psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl and is explored in depth in his 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning. During his time in Nazi concentration camps, Frankl discovered that it was possible to embrace optimism while acknowledging that his current circumstances were tragic. He not only used this way of thinking to survive one of the greatest tragedies in human history but learned to make the most of his circumstances and to grow from tragedy. Tragic optimism embraces positivity while acknowledging that life can be difficult, circumventing the problems found in toxic positivity. 

Closing Thoughts

Positivity is a great thing, but it can easily turn negative. Toxic positivity not only invalidates the experiences of those going through a difficult or traumatic time but also makes it easier for abusers to take advantage of their victims. So let’s replace toxic positivity with tragic optimism, allowing us to look on the bright side while acknowledging that we can experience multiple emotions at once and that life can suck sometimes.

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