Mindset is a critical, often overlooked component of health — especially as we learn to view health beyond outward appearance. Ditching negative thoughts is a good first step, but replacing them with a “good vibes only” mentality can be equally detrimental, a state of mind referred to increasingly as toxic positivity.
A wholesale rejection of negativity in all its forms, toxic positivity can inadvertently invalidate feelings and experiences — and make people feel like they’re failing or doing something wrong, explains Dr. Nicole Lacherza-Drew, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist and owner of Vici Psychological Care.
“There aren’t always going to be positives, and that’s OK,” she says.
Read on for real-life examples of toxic optimism, warning signs to look for — and tips on how to avoid giving or receiving it.
What Is Toxic Positivity?
Toxic positivity refers to the idea that we need to see the bright side of every situation no matter how bad, challenging, or lacking in bright sides it might be. (A classic example is the “this is fine” meme.)
The destructive effects of negativity are well documented. Not only is it a downer by definition, it can hamper cognitive function and cloud our judgment, impairing our ability to perform situationally.
But forcing positivity can make a situation worse, especially one we have the power to change.
“Toxic positivity is basically the idea that no matter what happens or what the outcome is, one should have a positive mindset or try to find the positive in the situation or outcome,” Lacherza-Drew says.
While this seems preferable to beating yourself up over mistakes and setbacks, “toxic positivity can be considered a form of gaslighting,” she adds.
7 Relatable, Real-Life Toxic Positivity Examples
How many of these situations sound familiar?
- You’re talking with your friend about your horrible boss and profess that you’re desperate for a new job. She responds with something like “you should just be glad for what you have.”
- You confide in your mother-in-law that you’re struggling to get pregnant. Her response? “Everything happens for a reason.”
- You tell your co-worker that your partner received scary health news. They say, “it could be worse.”
- You’re taking a course and can’t understand a key concept. When you talk to your instructor, he says, “Just stay positive. You’ll get it!”
- You lose your beloved pet while you’re away on a business trip — then your flight home is canceled. The airline agent says, “God only gives us what we can handle.”
- You’re halfway through your first 60-minute class at a local cycling studio. You’re not feeling strong enough to add more resistance, so you say something snarky and funny to your instructor. She says, “Positive vibes only here! No complaining!”
- Your kids are out sick again, and you’re working from home while trying not to catch their germs. The house is a mess and you’re exhausted. You tell your sister that you’re feeling overwhelmed. Her advice? “But on the bright side, you get to work in sweatpants!”
What’s Wrong with Toxic Positivity?
What’s wrong with these scenarios — and why shouldn’t you try to give people a little boost when they’re feeling down? While they seem helpful, “they are not effective at helping an individual work through their emotions and come out of it in a better place,” explains Kalley Hartman, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Newport Beach, California.
Instead of helping you stay motivated, cultivate a healthier self-image, and grow as a person, toxic positivity keeps you beholden to impossible standards of achievement and success. Here’s how mindless positivity harms your health:
Prevents you from dealing with your feelings
Not only does toxic positivity prevent you from dealing with emotions, it also “creates a false sense of happiness that relies on denying or ignoring certain aspects of reality,” Hartman says. That can lead to further issues down the line.
Keeps you from growing as a person
And, she adds, “when we are constantly pushing away our uncomfortable feelings, it makes it harder for us to learn from our experiences and grow.” This makes it feel like you’re in Groundhog Day, making the same mistakes over and over.
“This attitude can make people feel like they’re not allowed to express their negative feelings, which can lead to feelings of shame and guilt,” adds Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho, LSW, LCADC, CCS, CCTP.
Can prolong your suffering
You might notice your sense of reality shift, as you start to feel like the bad things are all your fault.
“This can be especially damaging when it prevents people from seeking help, as they may feel like their problems are too insignificant or not worth addressing,” Kotkin-De Carvalho says.
Can make you feel like a failure
If you’re surrounded by people who’ve bought into “Lucky Girl Syndrome,” you might (wrongly) feel like you’re falling short, Lacherza-Drew says. “They may believe they are doing something wrong or something is wrong with them.”
Toxic Positivity Vs. Optimism: What’s the Difference?
According to Hartman, toxic positivity “involves denying or ignoring difficult emotions, while optimism involves maintaining a positive outlook in the face of adversity.”
Further, “toxic positivity often has the effect of invalidating another person’s feelings or experiences, while optimism is used to motivate and encourage people,” she says.
The practical differences between optimism and toxic positivity can appear nuanced at first, but they become clearer with practice.
Say you’re having a tough time. You lost your job or hit a rough patch with your partner. You go to a trusted friend for advice.
Optimism looks like: “I am so sorry you’re dealing with this, friend. I know it’s hard right now. You can be honest about how you’re feeling, and then maybe we can make a list of some good things happening or think of some ways I can help.”
Toxic positivity shows up as: “I am so sorry you’re dealing with this, friend. But you are strong and resilient, and you have survived 100 percent of your bad days until now. You just have to keep your chin up and manifest the outcome you want. Don’t even think about the ‘what-ifs’! You’ve got this!”
While well-intentioned, the toxically positive response can do as much — if not more — harm as it does good, answering hardship with hokum and minimizing the seriousness of the situation to the one experiencing it.
Focusing instead on Health Esteem means appreciating ourselves as we are right now, while acknowledging that we have goals and a desire to change. It’s a healthy balance of optimism and motivation.
10 Warning Signs of Toxic Positivity
Here are warning signs to look for (from others or yourself):
- You feel shamed for sharing how you feel.
- They won’t let you complain or be honest about your feelings.
- You hide your true feelings — especially on social media.
- They tell you to be positive, manifest, or believe in yourself more.
- You only share feel-good quotes and mantras.
- They try to find the silver lining instead of acknowledging your situation.
- You are told to be grateful and stop complaining.
- They tell you to not kill the vibe with negativity.
- You ask for help and they share a Pinterest quote.
- They tell you to get over it or laugh things off when difficulties arise.
How to Avoid Toxic Positivity
You can train yourself to notice and avoid toxic positivity the same way you do other habits. It starts with self-awareness, Kotkin-De Carvalho says.
“Be aware of your own thoughts and feelings, and pay attention to how you communicate them.” Being mindful of the words you use — and how they may be received — can help, she says.
This is easier to do when you’re writing, so start with your texts, DMs and emails. Take a deep breath and read them again before hitting send.
Self-reflection can help you spot toxic thoughts, words and actions, Hartman says. Once you learn to recognize those red flags, you can reframe them. Avoiding the “toxpos” rabbit hole means slowing down and taking some “me time,” adds Lacherza-Drew.
“We are human beings — not every day or every feeling is going to be good or positive. Realizing that helps diminish toxic positivity,” she says.
How can you avoid spreading unwelcome good vibes? Just listen, Kotkin-De Carvalho says.
“Not everyone you encounter requires a solution, and sometimes it’s best to just be there for them, listen, and offer support.”
How to Deal With a Toxically Positive Person
The number one way to deal with a toxically positive person? One word: Boundaries. Let them know their behavior isn’t cool with you, and do what you can to maintain your own mental wellbeing.
Remember that you can’t control someone else’s behavior — only your reaction(s), Lacherza-Drew says. You may need to avoid certain topics, leave the room, change the subject, or limit the time you spend with someone.
If you’re up for it, “provide a gentle reminder that everyone experiences negative emotions at times” suggests Kotkin-De Carvalho. Remind them that tough stuff is normal. “Let them know that you’re here for them and that it’s OK to talk about difficult topics without judgment.”