Toxic positivity: Definition, examples, and alternatives
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 10/11/2022
Toxic positivity is the belief that positive emotions are the only acceptable response to life, even in the face of pain or tragedy.
Instead of holding emotions as value-neutral, toxic positivity ascribes moral superiority to positive emotions, such as happiness, gratitude, optimism, and contentedness. Negative emotions, such as sadness, anger, disappointment, or indignation, are viewed as obstacles to overcome or weaknesses to master.
Positivity is toxic when it is predicated on the suppression of other (often more negative) emotions. Instead of working through negative emotions to arrive at a more neutral emotional state, toxic positivity simply pushes negative emotions away and refuses to acknowledge or deal with them.
Suppressing certain emotions is a short-term solution with long-term consequences. Over time, it becomes too easy to suppress not just negative emotions, but all emotional experiences that feel dangerous, uncomfortable, or uncontrollable. This ends up including not just negative emotions (e.g., sadness) but also positive emotions (e.g., joy). Research has shown that people with major depressive disorder (MDD) increasingly suppress both negative and positive emotions, likely because of a fear of emotion in general.1
There are multiple strategies for avoiding difficult emotions and employing a toxic positivity mindset, such as:
- Comparing grief: Avoiding negative emotions associated with loss (e.g., sadness over losing a pet) by comparing it to a seemingly “greater” loss you have not experienced (e.g., sadness over losing a partner)
- Relying on platitudes: Responding to loss or tragedy with overly simplistic phrases or points of view in order to avoid thinking about or processing the experience more deeply and authentically
- Judging negative reactions: Criticizing anyone (including yourself) who displays negative emotions, even in response to tragedy or loss
- Assuming positive intent: Minimizing experiences of injustice or discrimination by insisting that the original intent of the person who caused the negative experience was benign
- Rejecting other perspectives: Dismissing the perspectives of those who acknowledge their negative emotions as “complaining,” “ungrateful,” “pessimistic,” etc.
- Shielding yourself with privilege: Ignoring or minimizing negative experiences of injustice or discrimination if you have not personally experienced them
Negative emotions can be hard to process and uncomfortable to discuss. Toxic positivity is a mental shortcut that allows you to avoid experiencing or talking about difficult emotions directly.
People who ascribe to toxic positivity often rely on recognizable words or phrases to shut down negative emotions expressed by themselves or others. See if you recognize any of the following examples of toxic positivity:
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “Look on the bright side!”
- “It could be worse.”
- “Stay positive!”
- “It’ll all work out.”
- “You’ll get over it.”
It is okay to want to have a more positive outlook on life or experience more joyful emotions. However, suppressing difficult feelings isn’t a healthy way to pursue that desire. It’s important to be honest about your feelings, whether they’re negative or positive, and acknowledge the reasons why positivity may be hard to come by, such as:
- Mental illness
- Trauma (especially in childhood)
- Dysfunctional family life
- Physical illness or chronic pain
- Income inequality and classism
- Sexism and transphobia
- Homophobia and bigotry
- Discrimination in the workplace
- Chronic stress
Validation and hope are two healthier alternatives to a toxic positivity mindset. Instead of suppressing negative or difficult emotions, validation and hope allow you to feel your emotions without succumbing to the worst possible outcomes.
Whether you’re experiencing difficult feelings or want to help a friend in a tough spot, validating emotions is a healthy place to start. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Feel what you feel: Emotions are called feelings for a reason. Instead of trying to overanalyze or dismiss your emotions, let yourself feel your feelings.
- Emotions are value-neutral: It’s not always “better” to be happy. Try to avoid ascribing moral value to certain emotions over others. Sometimes, sadness is not just okay, but called for.
- It’s okay to not be okay: You don’t have to be positive all the time. Feeling sad or angry or frustrated is not weakness—it’s part of being human.
- Hold space: Often, the best thing you can do for a friend who is struggling is to simply hold space. Instead of trying to cheer them up or help them see things from a more positive angle, simply sit with them as a nonjudgmental presence.
Hope does not promise that everything will get better or that everything happens for a reason. Instead, at its most basic level, hope promises that hopelessness is not a permanent state.
Platitudes try to make promises that can’t be guaranteed. Hope, on the other hand, acknowledges that a certain amount of vulnerability is required to face difficult feelings and believe that you will come out the other side. This belief may be based on your past experience, the experiences of others, scientific research, your personal values, religious doctrine, or a mix of sources.
Some examples of statements that convey hope and support instead of toxic positivity:
- “This is hard. I am here for you.” (instead of “It’ll all work out!”)
- “It’s normal to feel upset about this. What do you need?” (instead of “Stay positive!”)
- “I know how difficult this must be. It’s okay if you’re struggling. Let’s find a way to get through this together.” (instead of “Everything happens for a reason!”)
When offering hope to a friend, it’s helpful to place that hope within their own values and beliefs, not necessarily your own. It’s also important to note that hope is a choice. Hope forced onto someone else is a form of toxic positivity. It can be especially harmful if someone needs tangible help, such as food, shelter, safety, justice, medical services, or mental health resources, but is offered intangible “hope” instead.
Healthy positivity involves validating your emotions, celebrating and using your strengths, respecting your limitations, forgiving your failings, accepting yourself as you are, and freely choosing hope. Here are some ways to start practicing healthy positivity and learn how to abandon a toxic positivity mindset:
- Challenge negative thoughts/beliefs: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps you identify unhelpful or negative thought patterns that affect your emotions and behaviors. Instead of ignoring your feelings, CBT can help you identify, process, and learn from them.
- Make room for discomfort: Acceptance & commitment therapy (ACT) can help you create an enjoyable and meaningful life while accepting the difficulties that are an inevitable part of that life.
- Practice self-care: It’s easier to process your feelings and offer hope to yourself when your basic needs are taken care of. Self-care strengthens the foundation of your physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual health.
- Learn to self-regulate: Self-regulating your emotions makes it easier to process your feelings in a healthy way.
- Define flourishing: What does a healthy, truly positive life look like to you? Scientific theories, schools of thought, religions, social movements, and psychological approaches like positive psychology can help you develop a healthier definition than toxic positivity.
- Ask for help: There is no shame in feeling difficult or negative emotions. If you want to start processing suppressed emotions and experiences, visit our directory to find a licensed therapist near you.
Toxic positivity offers simple answers to hard questions. When you take away those answers, it can be a scary experience. Know that you are not alone. If you are in crisis and need help now, call, text, or chat with one of the following hotlines:
- 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.