The Dangers of Toxic Positivity

Chances are you’ve seen a meme saying something along the lines of “Positive Vibes Only”

On the surface, this mindset sounds pretty great. In reality, it’s what is sometimes referred to as “Toxic Positivity”. Toxic positivity is when you ignore negative aspects of your life, using exclusively positive affirmations and not allowing negative thoughts or proclamations. It comes in many forms, not just memes. Social media is a huge purveyor of toxic positivity. Toxic positivity can also look like someone who lost their job to say “at least I still have my health”, or for a parent to say to their child “don’t be sad” when a friend is mean to them. At face value, these seem like they could be helpful statements, so what are some of the potential problems?

Often, toxic positivity creates a feeling of guilt for experiencing negative emotions at all.

It can be trivializing to others’ experiences. If you are having a rough day, sometimes relying on positive vibes are enough to make you feel better. However-with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses-thinking positively does not make the symptoms go away. What this attitude does, instead, is imply that mental illness is simply a mindset that someone can get over. 

The mindset of positive vibes only does not allow for even the discussion of negative aspects of life. Emotional experiences are nuanced and should be treated as such. If you ignore the negatives, they do not just go away, and can, in fact, start to feel even bigger. 

It is easy to want to offer yourself or others perspective that “things could be worse”, but this ultimately can be harmful. Ignoring your problems by looking on the bright side does not foster solutions or the ability to work through the emotional challenges.

It diminishes the benefits of actual positive psychology

Martin Seligman originated Positive Psychology. It can be very helpful in countering negative thought patterns and allowing positive aspects of life to carry as much weight as negative aspects. Balancing negative thought patterns with positive ones is crucial to overcoming negative core beliefs. While toxic positivity completely eliminates the ability to even consider negative emotions, Positive Psychology does not.  

The more those in the mental health field speak out, the more the stigma around mental health will diminish. Unfortunately, mental illness is still highly stigmatized in some cases. Toxic positivity increases shame around mental illness, and even around having a bad day. 

What can you do instead?

  1. Be authentic about how you are feeling. If you are having a bad day, normalize saying “I’m having a bad day today”. This doesn’t fix all your problems, but it can make an enormous difference just to say it out loud. Also, this lets people around you know that they can also be honest about how they’re feeling. 
  2. Ask others how they are doing and actually mean it. We have a tendency to say “hi how are you” mostly as a greeting, rather than as a question. If you genuinely ask how someone is doing, they might be more willing to tell you. 
  3. Listen without fixing. When others tell us their problems, we have a tendency to want to offer solutions. Sometimes, this is not what the other person is looking for, and so, instead of being genuine about their feelings, they may just say that they’re fine. If you just listen and offer support, people may be more forthcoming about their struggles.

For most people, every single day is a blend of positive and negative experiences. Some days, the negatives outweigh the positives, and vice versa. Allowing oneself to experience both increases the ability to work through the negative experiences in a healthy way, instead of just ignoring that they happened. Try focusing on nuanced vibes, instead of exclusively positive ones. 

For help in learning healthy coping strategies, email or call us at (217) 203-2008 to schedule an appointment.