What Is Toxic Positivity and Why It Can Be Negative
Toxic positivity doesn't leave room for true feelings. There are many good reasons to look on the bright side, but it can also be blinding.
Embracing positive thinking
After a close friend died a few years ago, my usual efforts to stay positive weren’t working. “At least he didn’t suffer,” I told myself. “Use this as a reminder to check in with other friends more often.” Those may have been valid points, but they didn’t help. Sometimes thinking that way made me feel worse. I realized I felt better just being sad.
Many people embrace positive thinking in the face of misfortune. And many coach others to focus on the bright side, too. That can be good advice. Plus, positive attitudes have been linked to a range of potential benefits for both mental and physical health, including lower flu risk and greater longevity.
Positivity comes in many forms, however, and not all are necessarily positive.
If the pursuit of positivity impedes or invalidates your emotional processing, the result may be surprisingly negative. This can happen under any circumstances. But as countless people have learned during the coronavirus pandemic, opportunities for toxic positivity often abound during a crisis.
What is toxic positivity?
Despite its potential benefits, positivity can become toxic when it begins drowning out everything else.
“Toxic positivity is when people use or demand positive emotion or optimism in a way that causes people with legitimate concerns to feel oppressed or disregarded,” explains Stephanie Preston, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “It ranges from people actively trying to maintain their own spirits or sticking their own heads in the sand to forcefully preventing others from voicing uncomfortable concerns. In any toxic case, it feels repressive or invalidating to others.”
It isn’t a clinical term, notes Gail Saltz, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College. Toxic positivity is “kind of a made-up lay term,” she says, for “using the defense mechanism of denial or repression so extensively that you refuse to acknowledge anything that might cause a negative feeling—like sadness, anxiety, anger.”
The dose makes the poison
The existence of toxic positivity is not an indictment of positivity in general. A positive outlook is important. And encouraging others to be positive can be helpful when it’s done fairly.
“It is normal and adaptive to want to feel good and to take measures to maintain your own sanity,” Preston says. “It’s adaptive to push away negative feelings about situations that you think you cannot control. It’s also normal to want to avoid uncomfortable emotions.
“But when you find yourself imposing this need on others—telling them how they should feel, criticizing them for being too negative, demanding that they stick to pleasant topics, or only post pictures of mountains or kittens—then it’s time to take a step back,” she says.
Life is not always positive and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to be, either, notes Dr. Saltz. The appropriate amount of positivity varies by person and situation. As Preston points out, some people—such as those with chronic anxiety or depression—commonly experience higher levels of negative emotions than others.
“That can be uncomfortable, overwhelming, or even annoying to people who cannot relate to the state,” she says. As a result, “mental illness feels even worse when people around them fail to listen, appreciate, or support their situation, which is very real to them even if it is not what others are experiencing.”
When our emotions are met with intolerance, it may compel us to internalize the idea that such feelings are inherently wrong. Once that happens, many people begin reflexively avoiding or suppressing these emotions, perhaps without even realizing what they’re doing.
Effects of toxic positivity
Emotional suppression can be linked to a variety of problems, not least of which are “meta emotions”: That’s when you feel guilty for feeling lousy, for example. A study published in 2018 in the International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research found that on top of that initial anxiety or sadness, which may have been inevitable anyway, people are left feeling bad about feeling bad.
People who expend energy suppressing emotions can risk losing control over other feelings, finds a study in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Making the effort to bury your emotions can lead to a phenomenon known as ego depletion: The theory goes that we have limited mental resources; if we burn them up repressing strong feelings, we may hamper our ability to tame aggression when provoked, for example, or experience amplified versions of other negative emotions.
Emotional suppression has also been linked to stress-related physiological reactions, from headaches and sleep problems to heart disease. A study in a 2018 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that people who “accept rather than judge their mental experiences” may have better psychological health overall. That’s partly because their acceptance helps them experience less severe negative emotion when they are stressed.
Plus, if our negative emotions are sparked by negative events in our lives, positivity alone could backfire. For someone stuck in an abusive relationship, for example, recurring negative emotions may be an important signal, while trying to maintain a positive attitude could hinder the problem-solving process by masking the problem.
Positivity in a pandemic
Toxic positivity can happen whenever someone is experiencing a negative emotion, so conditions are obviously ripe in 2020. According to an October survey from the American Psychological Association, 78 percent of adults in the U.S. say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives, while 60 percent say they feel overwhelmed by the combination of issues facing the country right now.
“An unprecedented number of serious problems appear to be converging upon people in the United States right now, including overt and structural racism, political unrest, the Covid-19 pandemic, joblessness, and climate change,” Preston says. “These problems directly harm millions of people, in social, financial, physical, mental, and even mortal ways. They also indirectly cause most people to feel some mix of anxiety, dread, fear, guilt, anger, and defensiveness.
“These are real problems,” she adds. “They are problems that must be addressed. By burying your head in the sand or refusing to allow others to experience or express these feelings, you actively oppress and invalidate them—all but ensuring that the problems will persist.”
Aside from compounding mental health problems amid the upheaval of Covid-19, toxic positivity could also play a role in perpetuating the pandemic itself, Dr. Saltz points out. For people inclined toward denial as a coping mechanism, the simplest way to escape negative emotions caused by the pandemic is to ignore the pandemic.
“Denial is causing people to not mask, to eat indoors, and take other risks because they are denying that risk … in order to feel positive,” Dr. Saltz says. “Denial is a major public health issue now.”
How to deal with toxic positivity
Despite the harm it can cause, toxic positivity isn’t necessarily malicious. People who resort to it may not realize what they’re doing. Or they may genuinely believe they’re helping. As with many unwanted behavioral patterns, simply recognizing your own potential for toxic positivity can be a key step in avoiding it.
If you catch yourself on the verge of toxic positivity—either in addressing your own emotions or someone else’s—you may be in a better position to stop it. Similarly, if you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s toxic positivity, being able to recognize it may help you avoid internalizing the toxicity.
“Emotions evolved to alert us to problems so that we could fix them,” Preston says. “They are not bad, in and of themselves, just maybe temporarily uncomfortable. Listen to your own and others’ thoughts and feelings. Allow them to exist. It is more empowering and our problems are more likely to be solved when we invest energy in addressing them.”
Mindfulness meditation is one way to practice this, Preston notes, since it’s designed to help people acknowledge and tolerate difficult thoughts and feelings. Even just taking a few breaths might help, she adds, giving yourself more time to think before reacting to perceived negativity. If all else fails, try to keep quiet without passing—or at least expressing—judgment.
“If you don’t feel strong enough to be present with your own or others’ emotions, it’s OK to just walk away or stay quiet,” she says. “But resist the urge to invalidate them.”
- Stephanie Preston, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan
- Gail Saltz, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry, New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College, New York City
- International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research: "Consequences of Repression of Emotion: Physical Health, Mental Health and General Well Being"
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: "Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging"
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: "The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: Laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidence"
- Psychosomatic Medicine: "Positive Emotional Style Predicts Resistance to Illness After Experimental Exposure to Rhinovirus or Influenza A Virus"
- Social Psychological and Personality Science: "Ego Depletion Is Not Just Fatigue: Evidence From a Total Sleep Deprivation Experiment"
- American Psychological Association: "Stress in America 2020 Survey Signals a Growing National Mental Health Crisis"