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What Is Toxic Positivity?

Being optimistic has its benefits, but anything can be taken to an extreme.

Image by Vladimir Floyd on iStock
Source: Image by Vladimir Floyd on iStock

Toxic positivity can sound like a confusing phrase at first: After all, positivity is supposed to be positive, right? However, just like even something as innocent and healthy-sounding as jogging can become toxic if taken to an extreme, so can positivity.

Taken to an extreme, positivity becomes toxic and deprives us of the motivation to make healthy changes that the awareness of a negative, uncomfortable reality would otherwise stimulate us to make. For example, a person with toxic positivity might return repeatedly to an abusive relationship "because I want to just focus on his positive aspects, and hold hope that he will change!" Or they might run up huge credit card bills on frivolous things because they’re "staying positive" about future earnings.

What to do if someone in your life is mired in toxic positivity?

If you feel someone in your life may be lapsing into toxic positivity to the point of denying important information such as allowing people to mistreat them and or other self-sabotaging behaviors, you can try to share your perspective with them by telling them you are concerned that their positivity may be verging on denial. Be gentle, and emphasize that you're mentioning this only because you care about them and that you worry they may be setting themselves up for pain if they don't register certain signs of trouble.

Try to have at least three examples to share, since you’ll be raising a topic that has been in their “blind spot”. This will also help ensure you’re actually on to something real, rather than just glimpsing one moment of a person’s life and labeling them as toxically positive. Toxic positivity hinges on a lack of awareness of negative information, and examples can be a helpful, concrete way to increase awareness. It may also be helpful to raise the topic when the person is experiencing some sort of consequence of their toxic positivity since that’s when they might be more open to considering changes (like when their boyfriend is standing them up for the umpteenth time, you could provide a sympathetic ear and also take a moment to share your concern that it may be time to re-evaluate if this boyfriend really is such an angel, using a few examples from his past behavior).

However, you must remember that it's ultimately their life to live. If they become prickly or angry, it’s usually best to affirm that of course they know their own life best, and promise to back off from pushing your own ideas. On the other hand, you don’t have to be stuck forever picking up the pieces of their extreme positivity. They call looking for consolation for the hundredth time: “I can’t believe he stood me up again.” You could say: “I’m so sorry this is happening, and you know my thoughts about the situation; I think you deserve better, and I hate to see you suffer, I’m not sure I’m the best person to encourage you in learning to tolerate this from him since my personal feeling is that it’s not a healthy choice for you. But of course, I understand you need to do whatever’s best for you.”

What if you’re toxically positive?

If you know you have a tendency toward toxic positivity, consider asking a trusted friend or therapist to help you understand the underlying issue. For example:

  • Are you afraid of conflict?
  • Do you lack confidence in your problem-solving skills?
  • Do you have a belief that certain emotions like anger are “bad” rather than recognizing that anger is often a healthy indicator that someone may be violating our boundaries?

Understanding why you're doing this will help you to grow whatever skills you need to change. Also, ask your therapist (if you have one) or trusted friends to feel empowered to alert when they notice you are being too positive, since getting real-time feedback can be helpful when dealing with blind spots. As explained in the earlier section on how to help a friend who is toxically positive, friends are often hesitant to mention these patterns to others, since many people bristle at the suggestion that they might be “missing something”. Let others in your life know that you're aware of this and you want their feedback.

Journaling can also be a great way to build awareness of things we’d otherwise push to the side. Forcing yourself to journal every day for at least five minutes will help nudge you towards registering the good and the bad in life. For example, if you’re the person who is harmfully positive about their boyfriend, seeing a whole notebook full of examples of when they stood you up or otherwise mistreated you can make it harder to deny or “forget” about those incidents.

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