Sometimes, life is just bad. When things don’t go our way, we can be honest about that fact and deal with the reality it presents. Many things in our world are toxic or unhealthy, but you wouldn’t think that the words “toxic” and “positivity” could be paired together to name a single mindset or attitude. After all, they appear to be direct opposites, like bringing light and darkness together to make a whole. But toxic positivity is a thing.
In the wake of the positive thinking movements of the last few decades, many people have lauded the benefits of positive thinking for their overall sense of wellbeing. This is great, but it’s good to recognize the limits of techniques.
What is toxic positivity?
Human beings have a broad range of emotions available to express the various states and situations we find ourselves in. This is good, and it is a gift. What toxic positivity does is take the notion of positive thinking to an extreme that is detrimental to human flourishing.
Toxic positivity approaches even the most dire or difficult situation with the notion that people should maintain a positive mindset throughout. It can be viewed as a “good vibes only” approach to life that feels uncomfortable with and will often reject negative or difficult emotions.
Toxic positivity is often well-intentioned, whether it’s flowing from you toward someone else, or if it’s someone engaging with you during a difficult time. Toxic positivity inadvertently causes alienation and a feeling of disconnection by dismissing negative emotions and responding to challenging circumstances with a cheerful (though often falsely positive) façade and false reassurances.
This ends up only putting people under pressure to pretend they are happy even when they’re struggling. Toxic positivity will often deny or minimize grief or other emotions that aren’t considered positive or happy. A very colorful example of toxic positivity is the behavior exhibited by the character Joy in the Pixar movie Inside Out.
Sometimes, toxic positivity is self-imposed, but at other times it stems from other people who pressure another person to be happy, move on, or look for the silver lining.
What’s so toxic about toxic positivity?
A positive outlook on life has many benefits, from physical, emotional, and mental health, to improving your self-esteem and relationships with others. But can too much of a good or useful thing be unhealthy for you and others? Toxic positivity indicates that this is the case. It can deny how bad things are, minimizing the pain and experiences either you or someone else has gone through.
In a situation of injustice, for instance, toxic positivity can allow it to persist due to a stubborn insistence that “all is well and right with the world.” Sin and darkness are real, and they should not be minimized or excused under the cloak of positivity. In this way, toxic positivity can become unwittingly complicit in the evils of the world by overlooking or ignoring the hard edges of reality.
Toxic positivity can harm people who are going through tough times. By imposing positive thinking as the only lens through which to see life, it can demand that people ultimately deny the challenges they face, and that can silence their emotions and deter them from seeking the help they may need.
The outcome is that rather than being able to share their heartfelt emotions and gain support as they go through their struggles, people find that their feelings get invalidated, ignored, or simply dismissed.
Some of the impacts of toxic positivity include:
- Inducing shame by telling people that the emotions they are feeling are unacceptable.
- Increasing a sense of isolation and stigma, as a person feels pressured to simply grin and bear it instead of seeking support.
- Denying, minimizing, or avoiding authentic human emotions.
- Ignoring and underestimating real harm, causing people undergoing abuse to minimize its severity and remain in those relationships.
- Hindering growth by denying us the opportunity to face challenging emotions that can lead to emotional maturity and wisdom.
- Demeaning loss, by making the person who’s being subjected to toxic positivity feel that others don’t care about their loss.
Examples of toxic positivity include:
- Putting people who always appear positive on a pedestal and lauding them as stronger or more likable
- Urging people to thrive no matter what difficulties they are facing
- Telling a parent who has lost a child to be happy because at least they can have children
- After a catastrophe, stating platitudes such as “Everything happens for a reason”
- Telling someone to “get over” their grief or suffering and focus on the good things they have in their life
- Dismissing someone’s concerns by saying, “It could be worse”
From toxic positivity to healthy realism
Toxic positivity can do real harm in a person’s life, whether they are imposing it on themselves or receiving it from other people. Whether you’ve been affected by toxic positivity, or if you recognize these behaviors in yourself, there are several ways you can begin to address this.
Some ideas and strategies for avoiding self-imposed toxic positivity include:
Being aware of your emotions. Understand that negative emotions are a normal and important part of our lives as human beings. These emotions may need to be managed, but they should not be denied or dismissed.
These negative emotions can be harmful if left unchecked, but they let you know what’s going on in your life, and thus they can give you cues about things you may need to change to address your emotional needs. Pay attention to how you feel – if a situation suggests or demands that you feel “uplifted” but all you feel is shame or guilt, perhaps that’s an indication of toxic positivity that you need to avoid.
Talking openly about what we feel. Instead of bottling up your feelings, you should be deliberate about talking with people you trust about your emotions, both positive and negative. Our emotions ought to be expressed in healthy ways, and one way to do this is to name them openly before others. You can and should seek support from wise people such as trusted friends or a therapist.
Recognizing your emotional complexity. It’s okay to feel more than one thing at any given time because your emotions are complex, just as the situations we encounter are complex. For example, you may be facing a challenge that elicits both feelings of nervousness about the future and hope for success. Both feelings, including others, are very real in that moment, and it’s wise to recognize their complexity instead of overemphasizing just the one.
If you find that you’re inclined toward imposing toxic positivity onto other people, you can avoid this by taking on a healthier, more supportive approach, encouraging them to speak openly about their emotions, including the negative ones. Focus on listening to others and showing support. If someone expresses difficult emotions, don’t shut them down with platitudes; instead, let them know that you are there to listen.
Additionally, you can also become more comfortable with difficult emotions and avoid trying to have an upbeat response or positive spin on everything a person says when they are talking with you.
Within Christian spaces, toxic positivity can creep in subtly. After all, with many biblical injunctions to “rejoice always” and “give thanks in all circumstances,” it seems warranted to paper over difficult emotions with surface-deep praise and platitudes. However, the exhortations to be grateful in all circumstances aren’t a call to ignore the difficulties we find ourselves in.
In the Psalms, while you find many, many calls to give thanks, those calls usually follow the expression of deep pain, feelings of abandonment, etc. Those Psalms of lament might end with praise, but that praise is hard-won and comes after long periods of pain and tears, and the call to praise is a reminder to keep God as your ultimate reference point because otherwise you can be swept away by your despair.
The Bible encourages us to express the full range of our emotions even while recognizing the immense benefit of a posture of hope and gratitude. The cross of Jesus Christ is a central image for believers. We can weep because the cross and all it represents (sin, death, alienation, rejection, loss) are real, and our lives are marked by it.
However, weeping is not all there is, because beyond the cross of Jesus there was a resurrection, and what was dead was raised to life after three days. Jesus rose bodily from the grave – something that those who believe in him will participate in (1 Corinthians 15).
Between the cross and the resurrection, we go through a “dark night of the soul,” one filled with uncertainty, fear, despair, and confusion. The believer can express anguish because it’s real, but she can also express joy because there is hope. To avoid toxic positivity, we need to acknowledge the anguish – the cross – even while we cling to hope and a joyful expectation that the Lord will rescue us in his time.
“Approaching the Tree”, Courtesy of Vlad Bagacian, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Depressed”, Courtesy of Liza Summer, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Sitting on the Steps”, Courtesy of Darya Sannikova, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Woman Laughing”, Courtesy of Allef Vinicius, Unsplash.com, CC0 License