Toxic positivity vs. healthy positivity
Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski, MSW, LMSW, ACSW
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 08/14/2023
What is toxic positivity?
Negative emotions like sadness, anger, or disappointment—whether they’re ours or someone else’s—can be hard to process and uncomfortable to discuss. Toxic positivity is a mental shortcut that allows us to avoid experiencing or talking about these difficult feelings.
Positivity becomes toxic when it’s based on suppressing feelings. Instead of accepting and working through negative or challenging emotions, toxically positive behavior simply pushes them away.
Suppressing your own feelings is a short-term solution with long-term consequences. Over time, it becomes easy to inhibit not just negative emotions like sadness, but all emotional experiences that feel dangerous, uncomfortable, or uncontrollable—even positive feelings (like joy). Research has shown that people with major depression increasingly suppress both negative and positive emotions, likely because of a fear of emotion in general.1
Examples of toxic positivity
Some common ways of avoiding difficult feelings include:
- Minimizing negative emotion associated with loss (like sadness over losing a pet) by comparing it to a “greater” loss you haven’t experienced (like sadness over losing a partner)
- Responding to pain, loss, or tragedy with simplistic phrases or points of view in order to avoid considering the experience more deeply and authentically
- Criticizing people, including yourself, who express negative feelings, even in response to tragedy or loss
- Dismissing people’s acknowledgment of their negative emotions as “complaining,” “ungrateful,” or “pessimistic”
- Minimizing an experience of injustice or discrimination by insisting the person who caused the negative experience was well intentioned
- Ignoring or minimizing unjust or discriminatory experiences if you haven’t personally experienced them
Common expressions of toxic positivity
Toxic positivity often involves using simplistic statements to shut down negative feelings, whether they’re your own or someone else’s. See if you recognize any of the following platitudes:
- “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.”
Positivity and mental health
It’s okay to want to have a more positive outlook or experience more joyful emotions—but suppressing difficult feelings isn’t a healthy way to pursue that shift. Do your best to be honest about your feelings and the feelings of others, whether they’re negative or positive.
It’s also necessary to acknowledge the reasons positivity can be hard to come by, such as:
- Mental health conditions
- Trauma (especially in childhood)
- Dysfunctional family life
- Physical illness or chronic pain
- Income inequality and classism
- Workplace discrimination
- Chronic stress
Healthy alternatives to toxic positivity
A healthier alternative to toxic positivity is to validate emotions and offer hope. This approach allows you and others to experience and process difficult feelings instead of suppressing them.
How to validate emotions
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: They’re called “feelings” for a reason. Instead of trying to overanalyze or dismiss emotions, let yourself feel your feelings, and let others feel theirs.
- 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 only okay, but called for.
- It’s okay to not be okay: People don’t have to be positive all the time. Feeling sad, angry, or frustrated is part of being human.
- Hold space: Often the best thing you can do for a friend who’s struggling is hold space. Instead of trying to cheer them up or help them see things from a more positive angle, just sit with them as a nonjudgmental and supportive presence.
How to offer hope
When offering hope alongside validation, try to avoid making promises that can’t be guaranteed: for example, “everything will get better” or “everything happens for a reason.” At its most basic level, hope promises that hopelessness is not a permanent state.
When offering hope to a friend or loved one, it’s helpful to frame things within their values and beliefs, instead of your own. It’s also important to note that hope is a choice—and hope forced onto someone else is a form of toxic positivity. It can be especially harmful to offer intangible “hope” if someone needs tangible help, such as food, shelter, safety, justice, medical services, or mental health resources.
Here are examples of statements that convey hope and support instead of toxic positivity:
- “This is hard. I’m 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.”)
How to practice healthy positivity
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.
Try these actions to start practicing healthy positivity and unlearning toxic positivity (hint—therapy can help):
- 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, you can identify, process, and learn from them.
- Make room for discomfort: Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can help you create an enjoyable and meaningful life while accepting the difficulties that are inevitably 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 spiritual health.
- Learn to self-regulate: Starting to observe and manage your emotions and behaviors makes it easier to process your feelings in a healthy way.
- Define a healthy, truly positive life: A variety of scientific theories, schools of thought, spiritual practices, social movements, and psychological approaches (such as positive psychology) can help you develop a healthier definition of positivity.
- Ask for help: There’s no shame in feeling difficult or negative emotions. If you want to start working through emotions and experiences you’ve been suppressing, search our directory to find a therapist near you.
Get help now
Toxic positivity offers simple answers to hard questions. Taking away those answers can be a scary experience. If you’re in crisis and need help now, contact one of the following helplines:
- 988 Lifeline: Call or text 988
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline: Call 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.
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