Here’s Why Toxic Positivity Can Do More Harm Than Good

Two psychologists break down the negative outcomes of toxic positivity. Many of us best try our best to stay as positive as possible 24/7 to overcome systemic issues, avoid burnout, and simply attempt to live their best lives. However, not allowing yourself to experience the ebbs and flows of life can lead to some pretty harmful effects. To help uncover what those are, we chatted with Connecticut-based psychologist Roseann Capanna-Hodge, EdD, LPC, BCN, and NYC-based psychologist Vivian Diller, PhD. Check out what they have to say about toxic positivity below.

What is toxic positivity?

According to Dr. Capanna-Hodge, toxic positivity is when a person thinks it’s not okay to not be okay. “A person may want to disconnect from uncomfortable feelings and over-focus on positive and possibly unrealistic outcomes,” she explains. While this might make someone feel better in the moment, it can lead to unmet goals and overall feelings of unfulfillment in the long run. In short, toxic positivity encompasses the process of pretending everything is fantastic when, in reality, it may be anything but. In simple terms, you can also view it as toxic optimism or a form of fake positivity. Man evaluating toxic positivity in mirror

Why is Toxic Positivity harmful?

We know what you might be thinking: How could being positive be harmful? While having a positive outlook is a great way to live, Dr. Capanna-Hodge posits that suppressing emotions isn’t. “Denying or avoiding uncomfortable emotions is harmful because we’re not building stress tolerance,” she clarifies. “Resilience is all about managing and recovering from stressful experiences and not ignoring those uncomfortable emotions. Actually dealing with them is important for good emotional health.” Think of it like this: You just lost your job and are down in the dumps. Would you prefer that a friend to be there to help you ride out those emotions, or someone to urge you to be positive instead of giving you the chance to actually express how this loss has made you feel? While automatically opting towards positivity may seem like the best bet, actually going through the motions is more productive in the long run.

How to Know If You Practice It

Take a moment to reflect. When a stressful moment arises, do you:
  1. face it head-on and allow yourself to process the emotions that come along with it, or
  2. push the emotions aside and pressure yourself (or others) to be solely-positive in its midst?
If you skew towards the latter, there’s a good chance that you default to toxic positivity. It’s a fine line to walk. After all, optimism is great, but fake positivity isn’t.

Toxic Positivity Examples

To help clarify the concept, consider the examples below.

Example 1: You Unexpectedly Lose Your Job

Positivity: Trying to remind yourself that there’s light at the end of the tunnel Toxic Positivity: Pretending that you’re not upset at all and acting as though you’re completely fine

Example 2: You + Your Partner Break Up

Positivity: You’re grateful to learn from the relationship and are processing life without it Toxic Positivity: You pretend that the relationship meant nothing to you and fill the void by excessively going out and being happy-go-lucky

Example 3: Your Best Friend Is Having a Crisis

Positivity: You want them to know they’re capable of anything and this too shall pass Toxic Positivity: Telling them it isn’t a big deal at all and they’ll be A-okay Sometimes toxic positivity can come down to semantics. But overall, it’s the idea of covering up how you really feel (or downplaying how a loved one really feels) and instead acting as though everything is normal, good, and will turn out just fine. Woman reassuring stressed friend

How to Avoid Toxic Positivity

While it’s good to be positive, it’s also good to be realistic and empathetic—both towards yourself and others. So, how do you avoid toxic positivity? “Instead of only offering a positive insight, providing validation or helping someone to feel heard helps one feel connected and cared for,” Dr. Capanna-Hodge shares. “So when we support others who are struggling, a simple, ‘I hear you’ can go a long way in helping a person move through whatever they’re struggling with.”

The Bottom Line

Overall, Dr. Diller says that maintaining a positive attitude can be good for you emotionally and physically. Heck, research even confirms it. “But avoiding authentic, true feelings to remain positive at all costs can be also toxic,” she says. “This is particularly problematic when parents raise children trying to make lemonade out of lemons from all their experiences. It leaves them feeling as if any negativity should be kept hidden, from themselves and others.” When this happens, Dr. Diller says that children may grow up to feel pressured to be happy all the time—and, in turn, ashamed if feelings of sadness, confusion, or worry arise. “The pathology of the ‘perfect’ child can result,” she warns. With that in mind, she concludes that it’s better to find a good balance between optimism and realism. This happy medium can ultimately lead to your happiest, healthiest life.
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