When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, right? Making the best of things can be a useful strategy in the face of hard times (2020, we're looking at you). But when we choose to see only the bright side and banish "bad" feelings rather than deal with them, we've crossed the line into toxic positivity.
There's no denying the power of positivity, which can provide comfort and hope when you need it most. But an extreme "don't worry, be happy" attitude can dismiss pain, grief and trauma and even potentially cause damage to ourselves and others.
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That's why we spoke with Juhee Jhalani, PhD, a New York City-based clinical psychologist, to learn about the traps of toxic positivity and healthier ways to keep an optimistic outlook without dismissing darker emotions.
What Is Toxic Positivity, Exactly?
Toxic positivity is the idea that positive thinking should always be favored over unwanted emotions. It's an active attempt to overlook or push aside any less-than-happy thoughts or feelings like anger, sadness or frustration, Jhalani says.
But toxic positivity fails to consider the complexity of life and the full spectrum of emotions that come with it, Jhalani says. It oversimplifies situations — underscored by the premise that positivity can fix anything that's wrong in one's life — and in doing so, it can minimize a person's very real, painful emotions (more on this later).
This differs from optimism, which is the practice of wishing for a positive outcome while having full awareness that it may not happen, Jhalani says. While toxic positivity denies dark emotions and fosters forced optimism, hopeful optimism can help us face challenges and tackle new opportunities, thus encouraging us to grow and strive for a better future.
"You can be a realist while being optimistic," she says. In other words, optimistic people can process and address difficult feelings and still maintain a generally hopeful outlook.
Toxic Positivity Quotes
Common examples of unhealthy optimism include platitudes like:
- “Everything always works out.”
- "Everything happens for a reason."
- "Good vibes only."
Why Toxic Positivity Is Harmful
Here's how toxic positivity can be counterproductive — and even damaging — to your mental health.
1. It Dismisses Trauma and Pain
With a toxic positivity mindset, "discussing traumatic and painful events is not worthwhile, as it invites 'negative energy,'" Jhalani says. Instead, you might hear people say something like "let go of the pain."
These sayings can still be harmful even if they're said with good intentions. When you feel pressure to put on a happy face and don't acknowledge or process grief, pain and trauma, you suppress difficult feelings, which can cause additional stress, anger, sadness and irritability.
2. It Silences and Isolates People
Toxic positivity can discourage people from sharing their painful experiences (or force them to downplay their pain) due to fear of judgment, rejection or abandonment, Jhalani says. People will often stay silent because they don't want to appear negative or whiny.
But this type of situation can become incredibly isolating — especially for survivors of trauma and abuse — and may further exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety or lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse, Jhalani says.
3. It Invalidates Your Reality
People with a toxic positivity mindset will often minimize others' painful emotions and gaslight their peers for not being optimistic, kind, trusting or forgiving enough, Jhalani says.
If you're on the receiving end of this, you might question whether your experience or feelings are valid. You may even wonder if bad things are happening because you're not a beacon of persistent positivity.
But this line of thought can be especially dangerous when you're in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, Jhalani says. For example, a person experiencing domestic violence may blame themselves for not trying hard enough to make their partner happy, when in reality, it's not their fault.
4. It Impedes Personal Growth
Ironically, toxic positivity can prohibit progress and make a person remain stuck in a less-than-ideal situation or relationship, Jhalani says.
That's because a toxic positivity mindset often relies on magical thinking — the insistence that everything will be OK or the universe will intervene to rescue you — to solve problems, Jhalani says.
But sometimes things don't work out or require action to be resolved. And it's during these tough times that you must use your agency — not blind positivity — to make difficult decisions, which can ultimately help you grow as a person.
What to Do Instead
Here are some ways to resist toxic positivity and promote hopeful optimism and personal healing:
1. Set Boundaries
To protect your mental health, set boundaries or limit time with friends and family who spew toxic positivity. If you still feel lonely and unhappy when you see them even in small amounts, you may want to steer clear of them altogether, Jhalani says.
2. Find Your People
Invest in friends who will validate your experience and stand by you when you're feeling down, rather than blame or judge you, Jhalani says. Finding unconditional love and support in relationships will help you through those hard times.
3. Seek Therapy
If you're feeling sad, unseen or isolated, therapy can validate your feelings and help you learn healthy coping mechanisms, Jhalani says. With the support and guidance of a therapist, you can create a safe, nonjudgmental space to explore uncomfortable emotions, pain and trauma.
New to therapy? Find a therapist with the help of an internet search, online databases and recommendations from your doctor or trusted loved ones.
4. Learn to Sit With Emotions
Instead of running from your unwanted feelings, sit with them and notice them without judgment.
The same goes for others. Sometimes the most caring thing you can do for another person is hold space for all of their emotions, Jhalani says.
"Try to just 'be' for someone who is in pain and resist the urge to put a positive spin or problem solve by showing the 'brighter side' of things," she says. Simply being with your loved one is the kindest act of compassion.
If this doesn't come naturally to you, that's OK. In addition to therapy, you can also learn how to flex these muscles by practicing meditation and mindfulness, Jhalani says.
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