How Positivity Can Turn Toxic
How it goes wrong, and how to recover.
Posted January 10, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Positivity can be good for well-being, as long as we’re not using it to avoid or suppress negative emotions.
- Toxic positivity is defined as the act of rejecting or denying stress, negativity, or other negative experiences that exist.
- Because negative emotions are tools we use to get important needs met, we don’t just want to be shoving them away without acknowledgment.
Positivity involves things like gratitude, optimism, and positive reappraisal. You may have heard that positivity is good for well-being. On the flip side, maybe you’ve felt annoyed, angry, or uncomfortable when positivity was forced on you. Indeed, positivity can be good for emotional health...as long as we’re not using it to avoid or suppress negative emotions. Then, it can become toxic.
Toxic positivity is defined as the act of rejecting or denying stress, negativity, or other negative experiences that exist (Sokal, Trudel, & Babb, 2020).
It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish positivity from toxic positivity. For example, if someone tells us, “Hey, look at the bright side,” we might feel like they are diminishing or denying our negative feelings. Because negative emotions are tools we use to get important needs met, we don’t just want to be shoving them away without acknowledgment. So, seemingly positive advice from friends can often feel like toxic positivity to the person receiving it.
Here are a few more examples of toxic positivity:
- I say: “I’m having a bad day.” Toxic response: “But you have so much to be grateful for.”
- I say: “I don’t know if I can have a relationship with my sister. She doesn’t treat me with decency and respect.” Toxic response: “She’s family. You should love her no matter what.”
- I say: “This job sucks.” Toxic response: “You’re lucky you even have a job.”
In these examples, someone is using positivity to get rid of our true or negative experiences.
On the other hand, say a friend tells us, “Hey, it’s OK not to be OK.” This shows acceptance of our negative emotions as well as compassion and gratitude. This approach is not toxic because it doesn't deny our emotions and force us to feel something we don’t want to feel.
When Does Positivity Become Toxic?
One study showed that looking for silver linings is only beneficial in uncontrollable contexts. For example, if we lose our job, we might benefit from thinking about our future opportunities. But if we try to use positive reappraisal in controllable situations—or situations that we could change—we might actually be worse off (Troy, Shallcross, & Mauss, 2013).
Some research suggests that it is inappropriate to use positivity (positive reappraisal) when our identities are being threatened. For example, when people experience racial oppression, looking for silver linings appears to actually lead to worse well-being (Perez & Soto, 2011).
If people encourage us to use a specific emotion regulation skill that we’re not good at, it could actually leave us worse off. And, for many people, positivity can be a difficult skill to develop and implement. So if you’re not good at being positive, optimistic, or reflecting on your situation to find the silver lining, it could actually be bad for you (Ford & Troy, 2019).
Most people think of positive emotion as a good thing, and more is better, right? Well, it turns out that too much positive emotion may actually be a bad thing. Too much positive emotion has been shown to be a risk factor for mania (Gruber, Johnson, Oveis, & Keltner, 2008).
Being obsessed with happiness and focusing excessively on getting happy has also been shown to be bad for well-being (Ford & Mauss, 2014). It’s thought that this may create a discrepancy between how we feel now and how we want to feel. Indeed, having ultra-high expectations for happiness tends to be bad for our mental health.
Toxic positivity can be tricky. The benefits of positivity are very real and impactful, but at the same time, it can be easy to get positivity wrong. Hopefully, the guidance here will help you take what you can from the field of positivity psychology while still being able to prevent positivity from becoming toxic.
Adapted from an article published by The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.
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Ford, B., & Mauss, I. (2014). The paradoxical effects of pursuing positive emotion. In J. Gruber & J. T. Moskowitz (Eds.), Positive emotion: Integrating the light sides and dark sides (pp. 363–382). Oxford University Press.
Ford, B. Q., & Troy, A. S. (2019). Reappraisal reconsidered: A closer look at the costs of an acclaimed emotion-regulation strategy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28(2), 195–203.
Gruber, J., Johnson, S. L., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2008). Risk for mania and positive emotional responding: Too much of a good thing? Emotion, 8(1), 23–33.
Perez, C. R., & Soto, J. A. (2011). Cognitive reappraisal in the context of oppression: Implications for psychological functioning. Emotion, 11, 675–680.
Sokal, L., Trudel, L. E., & Babb, J. (2020). It’s okay to be okay too. Why calling out teachers’“toxic positivity” may backfire. Education Canada, 60(3).
Troy, A. S., Shallcross, A. J., & Mauss, I. B. (2013). A person-by-situation approach to emotion regulation: Cognitive reappraisal can either help or hurt, depending on the context. Psychological Science, 24(12), 2505–2514.