Too much positivity isn’t positive at all
Updated: Feb 6
Written By: Pouran Karimian, Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying), MA Candidate, Child and Youth Counsellor (CYC)
Our society is obsessed with the positivity movement and the illusion of living our happiest and best lives. From motivational speakers that preach positive wellness, influencers who flaunt curated joyful moments, trendy optimistic posts and quotes, workplaces that focus on employee morale to boost productivity, or friends and family who want to be our cheerleaders and say things like “don’t worry, be happy” - we are constantly bombarded by hollow statements of hope for an unattainable standard of happiness.
While there may be benefits to looking on the “bright side” of things, expressing gratitude, or cultivating a growth mindset, there is a right time and place to use positivity. The truth is, consistent happiness is not always realistic. Life is full of ups and downs with constant ebb and flow of emotions.
Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how difficult a situation, we must put a positive spin on it and not dwell on “negative” or “uncomfortable” thoughts, emotions, and feelings. It is an ineffective overgeneralization of an optimistic state that consequently minimizes, negates, and erases genuine human emotional experiences. Ironically, too much positivity isn’t positive at all.
Even with the best intentions, being consoled with a phrase like “don’t worry”, “everything happens for a reason”, “look for a silver lining” or “it could be worse” is not comforting at all. Often, what we really need is validation of our emotions and experiences. In its extreme form, toxic positivity can be gaslighting. By dismissing emotions instead of affirming them, the culture of toxic positivity instils the message that heavier human emotions like sadness, anger, or grief are unacceptable. When this message is internalized, we may feel guilt, shame, isolation, and discomfort with the existence of our difficult feelings and repress or deny them altogether. Denying the validity of our truths may cause us to feel or act in a way that is disingenuous and prevent us from processing these emotions and overcoming distress. Unaddressed emotions can manifest as isolation, anxiety, depression, trauma, unhealthy coping mechanisms, or even physical illness.
Whether it's social media or a close loved one who means well, misdirected positivity can be harmful. My personal experience with toxic positivity is rooted in my Middle Eastern cultures’ stigma around mental health, coupled with the cis-gender norms and perceptions of womanhood. I grew up conditioned to be poised and pleasant, to embrace gratitude by comparing my struggles with others who have it worse, as well as to mask feelings for fear of how others would perceive it. Then came the #GoodVibesOnly movement on social media and the numerous self-help books on the law of attraction.
I’d often embrace an uber optimistic and smiley public persona at work and in my personal relationships. I tip-toed voicing uncomfortable feelings and uncomfortable circumstances. Resultantly, by faking happiness at work I experienced burnout. By not feeling heard or understood in my relationships, I felt resentment and diminished connections. I felt guilty and ashamed for being sad, anxious, or angry at times. I spent a lot of time re-evaluating these narratives and learning how to be more mindful with myself and others.
Countering toxic positivity starts with paying attention non-judgmentally to the emotions that are unfolding in the moment and accepting them as they are. This cultivates self-compassion when you are going through difficult times, as you acknowledge the normalcy of heavier emotions and minimize the unrealistic expectations and pressures that you should always be content or happy. Research in the neuroscience and psychology field shows that expressing our emotions and even emoting our feelings (i.e., crying) can help us regulate our stress response and process situations better. Personal therapy is a great place to show up as our whole selves, start to explore how to make room for our feelings, and get us out of the toxic positivity cycle.
As a society we need to be conscious of how we are contributing to a culture that breeds toxic positivity. Genuine care involves holding space for others even when they are not at their best and validating those vulnerable moments. The best thing we can do is foster a sense of belonging by being present, demonstrating empathetic listening, and accepting others just as they are.
Davis, B. T. (n.d.). Toxic positivity: Definition, research & examples. https://www.berkeleywellbeing.com/toxic-positivity.html?ck_subscriber_id=857320531&utm_source=convertkit&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Rising+to+the+Challenge%20-%207453376
Ford, B. Q., & Mauss, I. B. (2014). The paradoxical effects of pursuing positive emotion: When and why wanting to feel happy backfires. In J. Gruber & J. T. Moskowitz (Eds.), Positive emotion: Integrating the light sides and dark sides (pp. 363–381). Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199926725.003.0020
Goodman, W. (2022). Toxic Positivity: keeping it real in a world obsessed with being happy. Penguin.