Toxic positivity is the act of avoiding, suppressing, or rejecting negative emotions or experiences. This may take the form of denying your own emotions or someone else denying your emotions, insisting on positive thinking instead. Although setting aside difficult emotions is sometimes necessary temporarily, denying negative feelings long term is harmful because it can prevent people from processing their emotions and overcoming their distress.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with showing positivity, optimism, and gratitude—those traits help humans flourish. Positivity only becomes problematic when it functions to reject negative emotions—if someone responded to a disclosure of distress, for example, with “It’s all for the best, “Just try to be positive,” or “Good vibes only!”
Toxic positivity describes a pattern of behavior; it’s not an official psychological term or diagnosis. It’s also not without controversy; some believe that the term can be overused to the point of undercutting resilience and encouraging pathology, and others emphasize the risk of tempering healthy positivity.
As the famous Robert Frost saying goes, “The best way over is through.” Negative emotions are difficult to deal with—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel them. Feeling all of our emotions in full, whether positive or negative, is part of being human and navigating the world.
Emotions contain important information; they can point the way toward changes that lead to fulfillment, happiness, and meaning. Genuine emotional expression also fosters authenticity, which is an essential ingredient of well-being.
Toxic positivity hinges on the failure to acknowledge or accept someone’s negative emotions. A few examples include:
• Statement: “I don’t know if I can have a relationship with my sister. She doesn’t treat me with decency and respect.” Response: “She’s family. You should love her no matter what.”
• Statement: “Work has been really stressful lately.” Response: “You’re lucky to even have a job.”
• Statement: “I’m having a hard day.” Response: “But you have so much to be grateful for.”
In these examples, positivity is used to deny negativity. An alternative response might sound like, “I’m sorry—that sounds hard. Tell me about it.” This response accepts the person’s emotions and demonstrates compassion and gratitude.
It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish positivity from toxic positivity. For example, if a friend says, “Look on the bright side,” they may not mean to ignore your distress (and you might not take it that way). But if someone consistently rejects your negative emotions, and if you consistently feel instructed to feel or act in a way that is disingenuous, toxic positivity may be at play.
Positivity is also particularly unhelpful in certain situations. Research suggests that looking for silver linings is beneficial in uncontrollable contexts, such as being laid off, but harmful in situations that they can control. Using positivity when one’s identity is threatened, such as in the case of experiencing racial oppression, also leads to lower well-being. Encouraging someone to use an emotional regulation strategy that they aren't skilled at can also lower well-being.
Humans have evolved to be more attuned to negative cues such as threats or challenges than positive cues such as rewards and successes; this is called the negativity bias. Proactively balancing the negativity bias with positive thinking is part of healthy psychological functioning: Research suggests that positive reframing, or the ability to turn a negative into a positive, is often an effective way to reduce anxiety and improve mood. Therefore, some believe that people should be very cautious about tempering their positivity.
Additionally, people may misuse the term. Confusing optimism and toxic positivity may deny support to people who use optimism as a coping skill. Ignoring the balance of optimism and pessimism may also lead to the expectation of negativity or pathology in difficult circumstances.
People who exude positivity and ignore negativity often mean well. They may think they’re offering encouragement and support, or they may not know what to say during a difficult conversation and wind up saying the wrong thing.
While toxic positivity may not be ill-intentioned, it can still be unproductive and hurtful. People may feel like their emotions are dismissed or like the other person doesn’t understand, care, or empathize. This can prevent them from being vulnerable and sharing their struggles in the future.
Relationships are built on vulnerability, trust, and authenticity. It’s key to understand how to acknowledge and support other people’s emotional experiences.
To avoid toxic positivity, try to acknowledge, accept, and reframe negative emotions. For example, instead of saying, "Think positive,” say something like, "The way you’re feeling is valid. How can I help you?" The same approach can be applied to your own thoughts.
If you consistently have trouble in this domain, it may be worth exploring the topic with a therapist. For example, do you feel guilt or shame about certain emotions? Do you avoid conflict at all costs? Do you lack confidence in your ability to solve problems? These questions and others can unearth the reasons for these tendencies and the skills to change them.
Acknowledge your feelings to yourself; try to explore them with curiosity and acceptance rather than judgment. It can also help to journal or share your experience with a trusted friend or family member. Probe where these feelings come from and what they mean; meaning-making can help people accept difficult emotions and build resilience. Then reflect on how you might be able to change the situation. In the meantime, coping skills like mindfulness, deep breathing, and journaling can help. If needed, seek support from a mental health professional.
Acknowledging and validating the emotional experiences of those we care about is one of the most helpful things we can do for them. If someone is struggling, examples of validating and supportive responses include:
• “I’m sorry that you have to go through this.”
• “Describe what you’re feeling, I’m listening.”
• “I can see that you’re stressed.”
• “Is there anything I can do to be helpful?”
• “I’m here for you, no matter what.”
• “Be kind to yourself.”
If toxic positivity is affecting someone to the point that they are denying important information, such as mistreatment in a relationship, you may want to share your concerns. You can explain that you are worried that their positivity may be verging on denial. Prepare a few examples so that you can discuss concrete cases and demonstrate the pattern of behavior. Be gentle and calm, and emphasize that you're raising the topic because you care about them.