Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Relationships

7 Ways Toxic Positivity Can Destroy a Relationship

... and how a shift in perspective can have lasting benefits.

Key points

  • Toxic positivity rejects difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful, often falsely positive, facade.
  • Toxic positivity leads to a lack of authenticity in our words and relationships.
  • Our emotional and physical well-being can suffer by pretending that "bad things don't happen here."

Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult your situation might be, you must maintain a blindly positive mindset that keeps you from truly seeing things as they are.

It's been described as a good-vibes-only approach to life. While optimism about the future can be the key to wellbeing, refusing to acknowledge the facts of a challenging situation can actually put our physical and emotional health at risk. It’s toxic to our wellbeing, and it can negatively affect everyone we engage with.

While there are benefits to being an optimist and engaging in positive thinking, toxic positivity rejects difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful, often falsely positive, facade.

Not only does toxic positivity harm our relationships with others, but it also harms our relationship with ourselves. Being hopeful about outcomes in life isn’t a bad perspective to take, but when your perspective becomes so myopic that you begin to ignore any less than shiny possibility or truth, your positivity can transform into a dangerously toxic element.

Seven Symptoms of Toxic Positivity

If you’re suffering from toxic positivity, some of the symptoms that you or others might notice include the following behaviors:

  1. Hiding your true feelings for fear of what others would think.
  2. Ignoring emotions that feel overwhelming in order to just get on with life.
  3. Minimizing any felt discomfort with feel-good aphorisms and buzz words.
  4. Invalidating your own and others’ emotions with the reminder that “things could be worse.”
  5. Brushing off feelings related to disappointment, sadness, and loss by reminding yourself that “things are what they are.”
  6. Being ashamed of any negative feelings and forcing yourself to keep a smile on your face.
  7. Shaming others when they are expressing their own negative emotions.

The Risks of Toxic Positivity Are Not Minimal

Suppressing our emotions can lead us to experience compromised physical wellbeing. It’s as if the emotional burden weighs down our hearts physically. This can raise our blood pressure and heart rate, increase our risk of metabolic illness, and even increase the risk of obesity. If we pretend that a symptom or sign of a serious illness will “just go away” on its own, we may miss the opportunity for early treatment of a life-threatening illness.

We also need to recognize that negative emotions seldom just “fade away.” They may lay dormant for a while, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t festering beneath the surface. Suppressed emotions will come out somewhere, and suppressed emotions can come out in inappropriate and inopportune settings. If we spend our days pretending that “everything’s just fine,” we may spend evenings being irritable or short-tempered with the folks we most need in our lives.

By hiding emotions, we are also cultivating our shame. Shame is an uncomfortable feeling, and when we couple that with the emotions that we feel are already “bad” to have, we give ourselves an emotional beating. There is no shame in experiencing fear, anxiety, sadness, or confusion. What might be shameful is not allowing ourselves to experience our true selves and find ways to work with or work through these negative feelings.

Relationships can suffer, too. If we aren’t allowing ourselves to be honest about what we’re feeling – or allowing others to feel comfortable sharing their authentic feelings – we are sacrificing true intimacy and forcing relationships to maintain a superficial, inauthentic quality.

And what you’re doing to others can be significantly harmful as well. You may be ignoring actual harm others experience; demeaning a significant loss someone’s had; isolating or stigmatizing a friend because they have expressed their true feelings; facing failures in efforts to communicate through your inability to bring empathy or unconditional regard to a friend, and damage others’ self-esteem by shaming them.

Pretending that bad things don’t exist won’t stop any abuse you or someone you care about is experiencing; it won’t stop a symptom from growing worse or your health from deteriorating, and it won’t allow others to truly feel that they can be upfront and honest with you in ways that allow for an authentic relationship to exist.

Neutralizing Toxic Positivity

To neutralize your tendency to be toxically positive, recognize that reframing your perspective will take some practice and some time to shift your thinking. However, practicing new ways of describing situations and new responses that move beyond “toxically positive” platitudes will help you make more space for authentic and honest communication.

Reframe Your Thoughts and Responses

Instead of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” try: “I can see you’re feeling stressed. Is there anything I can do to help?

Instead of “Failure is an option,” try: “I know failure can be hard, but it’s a part of learning and growing.

Instead of “If I can do it, so can you,” try: “Everyone’s experiences are different, and that’s totally okay.

And I won’t assure you that “Practice makes perfect,” as that’s another example of the type of toxic positivity we should try to avoid. But practice makes it easier to shift your perspective and the ways in which you relate to others in this world.

We are conducting a study to better understand the transitions and significant events that contemporary adults experience. To participate, please click this link.

Facebook image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

advertisement