When taken to its extreme, even positivity can have negative aspects. For the most part, it isn't kind or even realistic to expect people to look on the bright side one hundred percent of the time. However, there are some easy ways to tell if positivity is actually toxic positivity. You can usually see when the idea of positive thinking has gone too far.
If you've ever felt pressured into being (or at least seeming) happy, then this is a form of toxic positivity. "In recent years the phrase 'think positive,' has not only become a suggestion for people to look on the bright side of a situation or life, but can appear as a demand by others or a magical answer to all that ails you," says Jennifer Howard, Ph.D., author of the award-winning book Your Ultimate Life Plan. Although genuine positivity can of course be uplifting and pleasant, this kind of prescriptive positivity has a downside. "Other times being told to be positive or reading a book that says you 'should' always be and think positive, adds to the pain, fear, grief, hurt, sadness, and loneliness. An attempt to maintain a continuous positive attitude can feel false and toxic," says Dr. Howard. At the very least, it isn't a realistic way to go through life. So here are a few ways to tell whether your #goodvibesonly friend or colleague is actually pushing a form of toxic positivity.
1. It Rejects Honesty
For the most part, toxic positivity favors the appearance of positivity over reality, and it punishes people who honestly see the flaws in a situation. "Sometimes too much creates a situation where one person wants to be honest and really solve problems, and that person gets labeled as the bad person or the sick person in that group," says Aimee Daramus, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist from Chicago. This sort of dynamic can play out in any sort of group, from families to businesses. "Everyone is so busy looking positive that either no one is willing to bring up problems, or the person who does speak up gets rejected," says Daramus. This is particularly an issue because the problems are still very present, they just aren't being addressed. It's important to recognize flaws in situations so that they can be addressed and affected parties can move forward from there.
2. It Keeps People At A Distance
Real intimacy is difficult to achieve when you're faced with this kind of inauthentic optimism. "Toxic positivity can also keep people at a distance," says Daramus. "True emotional intimacy, true trust, can only come from finding out that you can trust someone." This kind of intimacy also involves letting people in on your flaws, something that forced positivity might not allow. Of course it's great to stay optimistic, but no one should sacrifice honesty in favor of it.
3. It Refuses To Accept Negative Emotions
Negative emotions are just another part of the human experience, but this brand of positivity doesn't really allow for them. "Toxic positivity is 'pushing down', denying, or minimizing negative or uncomfortable emotions (and actually, a person’s experience or reality)," says Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, CGP licensed professional counselor. This kind of black-and-white thinking is unhealthy, and it can feel invalidating, as Eddins further explains. Whether you sense that someone is minimizing your negative emotions of you're not letting yourself feel sad or upset once in a while, it's healthy to not only feel these emotions, but also to express them.
4. It Comes At A Cost
Pushing down negative feelings does not make them go away. "The distinction between the two matters because the pushing down characteristic of toxic positivity typically comes at a great cost such as addiction (both substance and process addictions like overworking, food, or shopping), increased mental health issues, decreased connection in relationships, increased shame and low self-worth, and LESS happiness," says Eddins. If anything, toxic positivity works against true feelings of happiness because there can be an underlying layer of unhappiness that isn't being aired out. It's important for people to recognize what makes them happy as much as what doesn't. If you know someone who is constantly suffocating their doubts and fears with happy thoughts, encourage them to talk to a close friend, family member, or professional.
5. It's Selfish
Genuine positivity includes a real sense of connection and empathy. "A person who displays toxic positivity makes it all — or at least mostly — about themselves. Or, they constantly expect that others will only be positive. Emotionally, that’s unrealistic," says Susan Bernstein, MBA. PhD., executive coach + leadership consultant. It's all about the person who demands "good vibes only," not really anyone else. When the going gets rough, you want the people in your community to be able to support you through difficult experiences, not alienate you for having them. On the flip side, it's great to have someone helping you see the light at the end of the tunnel, but not so much so that they can't even acknowledge that the tunnel is there, it's dark, and you could really use someone to hold your hand.
6. It's Judgy
At its extreme, toxic positivity can also seem dismissive of other people's very real emotions. "Additionally, their positivity may come off as unsolicited advice or judgment," says Bernstein. But in reality, it's totally normal and healthy to go through a variety of emotions, not just the pleasant ones. Don't let anyone dismiss your feelings. If anything, have a heart-to-heart with them, and if your relationship isn't that valuable to you, perhaps its healthier to distance yourself from them.
7. It's Unachievable
To put it simply, the intense positivity demanded by this form of toxic positivity is not realistic or achievable in the real world. "There's a huge difference between finding the silver lining on a cloud and denying the cloud ever existed in the first place," says Declan Edwards, founder of BU Coaching. Real life is not always perfect and faultless, and that's OK.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.