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The truth about toxic positivity

And why we’re all guilty of practising it.

By Megan Haf Donoher

Image courtesy of Axel Kristinsson


It could be worse, right? Just stay optimistic. Happiness is a choice. Look on the bright side. People have it so much worse. At least you’ve got… blah blah blah. That’s quite enough.


How about… It’s shameful. It causes guilt. It represses authentic human emotion. It prevents growth. And yet, we all do it as a way to suppress and avoid challenging circumstances.


One concern that has arisen as a consequence of the pandemic is the idea of toxic positivity, specifically that people should strive to be grateful for what they do have and not what they don’t or what they have lost. Toxic positivity takes positive thinking to an overgeneralised extreme while minimising emotions that aren’t wholly optimistic. While cultures such as these are well-intentioned and not meant to be hurtful, they ultimately undermine the intensity or difficulty of the situation a person may be going through. It creates feelings of disillusionment and guilt, which can only worsen someone’s circumstances.


The idea that a person is assumed to remain positive despite being in an emotionally challenging situation is toxic. Happiness being compulsively pushed enforces the idea that authentic human emotions that aren’t considered inherently good must be the opposite, and have no place to be valued or considered seriously.


Such attitudes deny self-compassion and the space for challenging circumstances to be addressed with the sensitivity they require. The minimisation and invalidation of the human experience consequently silences those who are struggling, resulting in feelings of anger, denial, and jealousy. This monochromatic mindset is the basis for being a transmitter of toxic positivity, and it’s something that we’ve all contributed to without realising the consequences. Whether it’s intentional or not, it remains essential to set healthy boundaries with anyone who is easily and consistently dismissive of your thoughts and experiences.


Signs of toxic positivity may include being too proactive whereby you’re dismissing emotion by overloading your schedule and keeping busy, comparing someone’s experience to something much worse in order to belittle their situation, shaming people for expressing an emotion that isn’t ‘positive,’ and experiencing intense feelings of guilt for sharing your concerns.


Such difficulty avoiding distressing thoughts has been recognised by many psychological studies as something that denying our feelings can lead to. Living our lives inauthentically can further contribute to a loss of connection with ourselves and the people around us.


It’s important that such behaviour is recognised in society in our everyday practices. Instead of stating that failure isn’t an option, view failure as a part of growth and success. Acknowledge that everyone’s abilities and limitations are different and that is okay as opposed to ‘if I can do it, so can you’. By alternatively noting that somebody is in need of support and to be heard and not in need of toxic reinforcement that supposedly ‘it could be worse’, there is a much greater chance of dealing with the root of the situation at hand.


It’s okay to embrace every triumph without invalidating the challenges of life. Give yourself permission to be realistic about your circumstances.