- Obsessively enforcing a superficially bright, optimistic mindset in the face of serious emotions is known as toxic positivity.
- Being too positive is related to emotional suppression, which often has negative effects on your mood or your health.
- The communication strategies mentioned here may help you avoid unhelpful positivity and strive for real connection, instead.
Is it possible to be too upbeat? Too optimistic, too bright-eyed, too indefatigably hopeful about the future? The answer, unfortunately, is yes—especially when it comes to maintaining a rigid and superficial positive attitude. Nowadays, we recognize that kind of reaction as toxic positivity.
No doubt you’ve been in a situation where you’ve opened up to someone about a serious problem, and in response, they’ve said, “Don’t worry, it will all work out.” Otherwise, someone might have blithely encouraged you to “Keep your chin up,” or perhaps said, “Think good thoughts.”
It certainly puts an end to the conversation, doesn’t it? By bringing up the difficult topic, you’ve expressed a desire to unburden yourself a little, but now you’ve been told that the other person isn’t willing to listen. By relying on rote positive statements, your conversation partner has cut off the connection between you.
And there may be more practical drawbacks to remaining chronically, thinly optimistic, too. Imagine being given negative feedback about your work performance, and instead of being told specifically how you might be able to improve, you’re advised to have “good vibes” or to “look on the bright side.” Or take the perspective of a parent who visits their child’s teacher and is told that “everything will work out for the best,” when their child’s behavior may be a signal for real problems.
Operationally, toxic positivity has been defined as avoiding or denying “any acknowledgment of stress, negativity, and possible disabling features of trauma,” as Sokal, Trudel, and Babb put it in a 2020 article. It is a preoccupation with viewing all experiences—even those that are unavoidably tragic—in a positive light.
Consider the person who responds to the news that a neighbor has lost their house by saying “it could be worse.” Or the one who says, in response to the news of a serious illness, “Everything happens for a reason.” People who subscribe to the notion that positivity cures everything are likely to tell you to focus on the good things in your life and to avoid feelings of sadness or anxiety, no matter what has happened to you. By limiting conversation to positive things, they fail to understand the full emotions inherent in your experience. Worse, it can devalue the perspective of someone who is going through difficult circumstances, and in so doing, it communicates rejection.
In 2006, a group of researchers at the University of California at San Diego and Boston University studied excessive positivity by gathering 60 people with mood or anxiety disorders. Half of these participants were asked to suppress their emotions while watching an intense, affecting movie; the rest were told to accept the feelings that arose as they watched.
From this, the researchers concluded that suppressing emotions—as one does when one enforces a positive attitude, with no ability to tolerate worry or sadness—was linked to higher levels of negative affect, lower positive feelings, and decreased well-being (Campbell-Sills et al, 2006). A few years later, Wood, Perunovic, and Lee (2009) examined the effects of positive thoughts in three interrelated studies and found that these self-statements had their highest effects—negative effects, that is—on people with low self-esteem.
From these studies alone, it’s becoming clear that relying on superficial positivity, without allowing for nuance or emotional complexity, is not healthy. Many people, however, are not well versed in other ways of managing their emotions, or other styles of communication. It’s important to recognize that reducing your reliance on positivity can make you a much better listener. Instead of telling someone to “look on the bright side,” why not acknowledge that they’re going through something serious? You might say that what they’re going through sounds quite difficult. Or you might tell them that you understand why they’d feel the way they do.
If you’re not sure how to reply, perhaps you might even admit it. Saying something as simple as, “I guess I don’t know what to say,” can help, just by accepting the seriousness of the subject matter. “Is there a way I can help?” can do the same job, too. It communicates compassion to the person you’re talking to, even as you acknowledge that their situation is difficult.
To be clear, being bright-eyed and hopeful at times is not, in itself, a terrible thing. But moderation is important, in this case. Excessive, inappropriate positivity, in the face of serious situations, can be oppressive, alienating, or even harmful. Acknowledging another person’s painful circumstances, even at the risk of not fully knowing how to help, is often the best way to go.
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Campbell-Sills, L., Barlow, D. H., Brown, T. A., & Hofmann, S. G. (2006). Effects of suppression and acceptance on emotional responses of individuals with anxiety and mood disorders. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(9), 1251–1263.
Millacci, T. S. (2021). Toxic Positivity in Psychology: How to Avoid the Positivity Trap. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/toxic-positivity-in-psychology/
Sinclair, E., Hart, R., & Lomas, T. (2020). Can positivity be counterproductive when suffering domestic abuse? A narrative review. International Journal of Wellbeing, 10(1), 26–53.
Sokal, L., Trudel, L. E., & Babb, J. (2020). It’s okay to be okay too. Why calling out teachers’ “toxic positivity” may backfire. Education Canada, 60(3).
Villines, Z. (2021, March 30). What to know about toxic positivity. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/toxic-positivity#what-it-is
Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. Q. E., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others. Psychological Science, 20(7), 860–866.