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3 Ways Toxic Positivity Harms Our Mental Health

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If positive platitudes seem insensitive to you during the pandemic, you’re not alone. Our mental health is suffering and “good vibes only” culture is on its way out. The good news is that a rejection of toxic positivity is just what the doctor ordered. 

What is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity is the idea that we should have a positive mindset rather than validate or experience our emotional pain. While general positivity in the face of adversity is sometimes helpful, its overuse can invalidate our feelings and experiences. Trying to be positive in an excessive or overgeneralized way often requires denying or minimizing our actual feelings, and it isn’t an effective strategy for relieving our suffering.

3 Ways Toxic Positivity Harms Our Mental Health

1. Toxic positivity makes us feel worse

Trying to suppress negative thoughts and avoid uncomfortable feelings actually has a rebound effect and makes things worse.  Studies show that trying to avoid negative emotions exacerbates them and is linked to mood disorders including anxiety, depression, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Studies also show that overemphasizing happiness can make us more likely to obsess over failures and unpleasant emotions, making us more stressed out in the long run.

When it shows up in the context of manifesting goals and the law of attraction, toxic positivity can also trigger or exacerbate mental health symptoms. For example, worrying that our negative thoughts are responsible for all of our circumstances can increase anxiety and self-blame. Check out my course on Healing from Negative Manifestation Experiences to learn more.

2. Toxic positivity leads to disappointment and shame

Judging our emotions not only prolongs them but creates additional difficult emotions. If we are constantly judging ourselves as falling short because we aren’t as happy as we think we should be, we will experience disappointment and shame in addition to the original emotion we had. If we’ve internalized toxic positivity and make it into a habit, disappointment and shame can become our default emotions any time we feel an unpleasant emotion. This puts us at risk for depression and anxiety. 

Despite the pressure to be positive, we really need to be careful with our expectations. Studies show that happiness actually depends, in part, on the match between how we feel and how we want to feel.  In other words, if our desired emotion is joy and we don’t get there, we will feel disappointment; believing that we should feel better than we do could actually make us less happy.

3. Toxic positivity encourages insensitive communication and increases isolation

When we offer positive platitudes rather than a compassionate ear to others, it usually leads to feelings of shame and increased isolation. The message that’s received might be: If you were more positive, things wouldn’t be so bad. Hearing “keep your head up, it could always be worse” invalidates an individual’s emotions and can make them less likely to share their pain or seek help in the future.

Toxic positivity can also put too much individual responsibility on someone, or worse, it can be a form of victim blaming or gaslighting. This is especially the case when someone is struggling with mental health. Toxic positivity can make people who are struggling with mood disorders such as depression feel like failures and it increases the stigma associated with mental health issues. Rather than acknowledging that mood disorders are actually mental illnesses, toxic positivity suggests that “happiness is a choice” and that treating mood disorders simply requires the will to think positive thoughts. Despite its prevalence in wellness and self-help spaces, this type of ableism is rarely discussed.

Being a mental health advocate means that we acknowledge the harm that toxic positivity can cause.

The Bottom Line

We need to shift our focus from maintaining a positive attitude despite all odds to recognizing our feelings and allowing ourselves to heal. Our emotions require attention, validation, and compassion and it all starts with sincere support from ourselves and others. This could include seeking a mental health provider as well as reminding ourselves that it’s actually healthy to ignore and even call out messages such as “just choose happiness” and “gratitude first” for what they are: toxic.

If you’re interested in a course that addresses toxic positivity as it relates to manifesting desires, I have a course called Healing From Negative Manifestation Experiences. If you want to read more about what you can do instead of toxic positivity, check out an article I wrote a few years ago.

February 2022 update: I highly recommend reading Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy by Whitney Goodman.  

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I observe this so often in interactions between child and “well-meaning” adult. The child who is sleeping away from his family for the first time doesn’t need to be told that he’s big enough or old enough or strong enough to go back to the bunk room with everybody else. He needs to be asked how he feels – is this situation weird to him? – and to know that it’s OK to have some tears – and that while we can’t take him home, we can help him feel more comfortable where he is. And, most importantly, that we are not angry with him for having these feelings.

Thanks for your comment! Toxic positivity definitely comes up in interactions between adults and children. Many people are uncomfortable with children’s big feelings and try to deal with them by shutting them down (even with well-intentioned “positive” statements). The empathy and support that you suggest would go a long way in such situations!

Thank you. Wisdom in the midst of ignorance. So many people seem to think they can just “positively think/feel” their way into abundant success, and view any negative thoughts as an enemy to be denied and defeated. I understand that a positive attitude produces vast benefits, but denial and delusion of reality can deliver devastating consequences as well. Thank you for your article!

Thanks, David! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Indeed, positivity can be beneficial, but it can also be weaponized against ourselves and others and used to avoid facing problems. Thanks for your insights!