"Toxic positivity" is a term used to describe an attitude where positive emotions and expressions are valued above all others.
Toxic positivity can be internal—like stifling your own negative reactions, or internal—like shutting down negative sentiments from other people in your life. A tendency to focus obsessively on the positive can lead to a range of emotional and physical consequences.
If you believe that your unflagging positivity is keeping you from dealing with your true feelings and experiences, it may be time to consider speaking with a professional. Our list of the best online therapy sites can be a great place to start. Here are the top 10 signs of toxic positivity.
1. Your habitual response to an unhappy situation is to "focus on the positive"
If you typically ignore situations, people, or feelings that make you uncomfortable, and just keep “moving forward,” you may be ignoring opportunities to make real progress and grow as a person. Negative experiences--while tough to face at times--allow us to learn and improve ourselves.
2. You believe that a positive attitude will get you through anything
There is no doubt that positive thinking can help people get through tough situations. A study of college students found that positive thinking was a key factor in building resilience in suicide prevention. However, positive thinking on its own did not build resilience. Social support, in the form of strong and supportive social networks, worked hand-in-hand with positive thinking to improve suicide resilience. In our daily lives, a balance of positivity and other behaviors–like allowing other people to help us in difficult times—are more helpful than a blindly optimistic viewpoint.
3. You feel guilty or ashamed when you acknowledge anger, frustration, or other negative emotions
For people with habits of toxic positivity, guilt often stems from an overall feeling that other people in the world have more difficulty in their lives, so we shouldn’t be “selfish” and express negativity. While it’s important to acknowledge the suffering in the world, repeatedly dismissing our own troubles won’t help anyone. This cover-up can cause a vicious cycle of low self-esteem, where “positivity” actually leads to a deeper feeling of self-hatred. Facing your true emotions is nothing to be ashamed of and will help you cope with difficult situations in the future. Consider exploring your negative emotions with the help of a trained counselor, a trusted friend, or through productive alone time.
4. You consistently tell people in your life to express only positive emotions
You may find yourself scolding others who don’t have positive reactions, or telling them “hey, it could be worse!” Yes, it could. But that’s no reason to dismiss their experiences. Grief, loss, and sadness are a part of life. It can be tough supporting a friend in need, and difficult to find the words to help them. But asking someone to express positive feelings just to make you more comfortable doesn’t do either of you any favors. Instead, practice active listening, acknowledge their pain, and let them know you’re there for them.
5. You use positive quotes as a crutch
When you or someone you care about has a negative experience, you may find yourself turning to clichés like "It could be worse!" or "think happy thoughts!" An overreliance on these sayings are a signal that toxic positivity is causing you to replace real, sometimes ugly emotions with falsely positive ones. Work on finding more productive responses to difficult situations. Internally, something like "Why am I feeling this way?" can help. When speaking with friends who are having a tough time, try replacing the usual sayings with something more helpful to show you care, like "How can I help?" or "Tell me more."
6. Your "focus on the positive" causes you to be unprepared for certain tasks, like tests or work assignments
A positive attitude can certainly help get us through many situations and allow us to avoid getting mired in self-doubt. But where toxic positivity is at play, a feeling of optimism can overshadow reality. A hopeful feeling that "everything will work out somehow" may make you prepare less than you need to for that big test or presentation, setting you up for failure. A better approach is to take stock of the situation and use your positivity to power you through the tasks you need to complete to achieve success.
7. You avoid talking about negative stories or feelings with your friends
Do the people in your life think that you’re always happy? If your conversations in real life--and your feed on social media--only convey a polished, happy persona, this can be a sign of toxic positivity. It can derail meaningful personal growth and important relationships. If someone opens up about something negative or uncomfortable, do you usually rush to help them see the positive side, or scold them for talking about it? You may want to take a step back and explore the possibility that you are promoting an atmosphere of toxic positivity.
8. Your consistent optimism is getting in the way of meaningful relationships
If your friends think that you expect them to be happy all the time, this perception could make them avoid getting in touch when they’re going through difficult times. Forcing others to stay on “the bright side” can cause those you love to feel ignored or guilty if they just want to be heard. And avoiding negativity makes it impossible to have real communication to solve problems in relationships. Listening to negative emotions and talking about your own stories of negative events or feelings can help allow for true connections to build stronger relationships.
9. You rely on unhealthy habits to get through difficult moments
If you tune out the negative aspects of life often enough, you may find yourself frequently turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms--like junk food, alcohol, or other unhealthy substances--to avoid dealing with negative thoughts. These harmful options provide only temporary escape from negative feelings and will be useless in helping you process your true underlying emotions.
10. You feel trapped or isolated because of your "positive" attitude
If you’ve allowed yourself to express only the happiest of emotions, you may be unlikely to turn to friends for help when times are tough. You may feel alone, believing that no one knows the struggles you face. Toxic positivity can also cause a reluctance to get professional help for anxiety, depression, or other issues that can be holding you back in life. If you recognize that your habits are making you isolated, it’s important to find ways to open up to other people, whether it be friends, family, or a professional counselor.
No matter what you might see on social media feeds, there is no such thing as 100% positivity. Happiness is a great goal, but no real human can achieve it all the time. If you are in the habit of ignoring negative emotions, it may be time to address the possibility of "toxic positivity." A relentless focus on happiness can get in the way of meaningful growth and good relationships, so consider breaking this cycle by allowing negativity back into your life. Turning to a trusted friend or a licensed professional can help.