What is toxic positivity?
You may have heard of this term recently. Toxic positivity is a kind of positive attitude that can come up out of fear. People who slip into toxic positivity usually mean well! But when a person’s optimism and hopefulness dismiss another person’s feelings, that’s when positivity can become toxic.
Toxic positivity can look like shutting other people down if they’re scared, mad or complaining. It can look like telling someone not to feel how they feel. It can look like a frantic attempt to stay in control—-and it can all be said with a well-intentioned smile and chipper attitude.
The harm of toxic positivity
When our mindsets become toxic and we need positivity all the time, it can teach us to believe that any other emotions or thoughts we have are “bad.” It can lead us to assume that any level of stress in our lives is harmful, or that any sadness or doubt must mean we’re ungrateful for our blessings.
Positivity isn’t a “better” state of being than negativity. It’s just more comfortable. We might think of positivity as a cure to unhappiness and even sickness. But in reality, it’s far healthier to feel your feelings—both the positive and the negative—and not deny them. Processing our emotions and working through negative thoughts is how we end up with a more balanced, longer-lasting peace of mind.
Helpful caring looks different
While toxic positivity can look like fear or anxiety masked with a smile, healthy positivity comes from a place of genuine care. Helpful caring looks less like being “cheery” and more like compassion, validation and acceptance. The key is to show your support for the other person, regardless of how they feel.
Examples and reframes
- Toxic phrase: “It can’t be all that bad. Things could always be worse!”
- People sometimes say this to themselves or others as a way to feel more grateful for what they have. Gratitude is a great way to feel positive! But sayings like this can also invalidate just how bad things might feel in the moment. Sure, things can always be worse. It doesn’t mean that the pain or fear you feel is not valid.
- More caring option: “It sounds like you’re really struggling. What kind of support do you need?”
- Recognizing and affirming someone’s struggles is a powerful way to show you care. And asking them what support looks like to them gives you the chance to tailor your support to their needs.
- Toxic phrase: “Don’t be such a downer. Gotta stay positive!”
- It can feel like harmless encouragement. But telling someone not to express their concerns, sadness or anger can make them feel like they’re a burden to you. This kind of “just stay positive” statement often sprouts from the fear that, if someone voices negative emotions, it will drag everyone down around them. It’s important to set boundaries so other people can feel their feelings—and so your feelings can stay separate from theirs.
- More caring option: “It sounds like you’re feeling [sad/angry/lonely/exhausted/etc.]. Would you like to tell me more about it?”
- When someone expresses their feelings to you, they’re being vulnerable. They’re also sharing valuable information with you. You can honor them by reflecting back what you hear, and inviting them to share more with you. If they feel comfortable expressing themselves to you, they may be comfortable talking it out with you, too. It’s an opportunity for you to be a good friend/family member to them!
- Toxic phrase: “Shake it off. Suck it up. Get over it.”
- Parents have often used this kind of language to get their kids to move on and not throw tantrums or dwell on unhappy moments. This kind of tactic puts a damper on a kid’s ability to live with their own negative feelings. It reinforces the idea that they have to skip to the “I’m all better now” part without processing the super important “ouch, that hurt!” part. The same cycle can come up in adults, too.
- More caring option: “That looks like it hurt” or “That was scary, wasn’t it?”
- You can validate someone’s emotional experience by empathizing with them—especially children. Instead of trying to “toughen them up” for a cruel world, you have the chance to teach them strength by helping them understand their experiences. And when someone understands themselves better, they’re more likely to feel more resilient in the future.
- Toxic phrase: “I’m sure it’ll all work out.”
- Does it sound like a hopeful message? Absolutely. But saying this phrase is often a way to signal to someone else, “I’m not comfortable hearing you talk about this anymore. I’d like to end this conversation on a positive note.” That’s not very caring. The key is to show your support regardless of what the future holds.
- More caring option: “No matter what happens, you have people who support you and care about you.”
- This kind of message reminds people that it’s okay to fail—that even when plans don’t work out, you can still survive. It also reminds people that they don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of your care and love!
- Toxic phrase: “Just think happy thoughts! Smile more.”
- Denial can be a powerful thing. If we’re afraid to feel uncomfortable emotions like rage or anxiety, we might say things like this to ourselves or the people around us. In a way, it’s like we’re training ourselves or others to deny negative thoughts.
- More caring option: “I can hear you’re worried. Thank you for sharing this with me—it means a lot that you would open up to me like this.”
- A statement like this is powerful for a few reasons. First, it affirms someone’s concerns without dismissing them. Secondly, by thanking someone for sharing, it encourages them to keep expressing themselves without guilt. And lastly, this kind of response also tells someone that, while you’re not there to fix their problems for them, you are grateful for the chance to get closer to them. This can deepen your connections with others.
Remember, the goal isn’t to control yourself or others, it’s to show yourself and others that everyone is worthy of support, no matter how they feel!
Try some of these exercises with your loved ones—and with your own internal thoughts! Helpful caring can open a gateway to a less fearful, more balanced state of mind.