Toxic Positivity: When Everything is Good, Nothing is Good

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We all know someone who’s way too positive—they’re always looking on the bright side of life or finding the silver lining in a raincloud. No matter what happens, that person is always in good spirits, and it’s difficult to bring them down. This is a great friend to have: someone who can help remind you of the happier things in life. After all, a smile is contagious!

But there’s a line between being a happy ray of sunshine and invalidating someone’s feelings. People are allowed to feel emotions other than happiness. When someone passes away, we want to grieve—not look on the bright side. When we’re sick or injured, sometimes we need to wallow a little! At these times, someone’s persistent positivity can weigh on us—and when it makes your emotions feel invalidated, that persistent positivity becomes a toxic trait.

What is toxic positivity?

People displaying toxic positivity don’t often realize they’re doing it. They’re trying to be helpful or supportive, and inadvertently invalidate the emotions of the people they care about.

Let’s say your dog dies. You’re heartbroken and beside yourself, depressed and crying. You need to release all of this emotion to grieve and cope with the loss and, eventually, you’ll be okay again. But you’re not right now. Right now, you’re devastated. In this situation, someone exhibiting toxic positivity will try hard to push you out of your sad emotional state and into one that’s happier. The problem is, they do this at the expense of your feelings.

At its core, toxic positivity is invalidating. Consider the difference between these two comforting sentiments:

  • “Just try to look at the bright side; they’re not in pain anymore” and;
  • “I know this really sucks. Is there anything I can do to help? I’m here for you.

Both sound nice on the surface, but the first is invalidating, while the second is validating. The first sentiment—the outwardly positive one—is telling someone what to do and how to feel. The second sentiment is validating and recognizes how that person feels. Toxic positivity occurs when there’s too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

How to handle toxic positivity

As mentioned, people exhibiting toxic positivity don’t often realize it. They’re just trying to be helpful and are rarely aggressive about it. Nevertheless, their comments hurt and can feel dismissive. Thankfully, there are ways to address toxic positivity outright.

The first and best way is to say something along the lines of “I just want support, not solutions.” Toxic positivity is usually the result of someone trying to solve problems or help you overcome trouble. Telling them you want support instead of solutions helps them understand that you need validation, not recommendations.

You can also ask for affirmation; both subtly and directly. This can quickly turn toxic positivity into affirmation. For example, instead of saying “you’ll get through this” a person might recognize your need for affirmation and say “you’ll get through this because you’re a strong person.” That simple affirmation affirms and validates your feelings, instead of downplaying them with toxic positivity.

Finally, recognize that the person is trying to help, but let them know what kind of support you need. “I really appreciate your positivity, but for now, I just want to process these emotions.” Many people exhibiting toxic positivity are, to a degree, empathic. They’re hurt that your hurt or upset that you’re upset. They understand what it means to process emotions and can shift their support to help you cope with yours, rather than trying to push you through them.

If everything is good, nothing is good

Toxic positivity is, unfortunately, usually a product of emotional compartmentalization. For some people, it’s easy to pack away unpleasant emotions and replace them with positives: good vibes, new goals, small dopamine triggers that keep them moving. This isn’t how it works for everyone, however. Toxic positivity usually comes about when an emotional compartmentalizer tries to help someone who readily emotes. The sentiment is genuine; the result is a clash.

It’s important to recognize toxic positivity and take strides to address it. Remember, your always-happy friends are just trying to help, and they’re not always aware that their positivity has gone from helpful to toxic. Kindly calling someone out on their toxic positivity doesn’t make you a Negative Nancy—it makes you someone who’s entitled to experience the full gamut of emotions, good and bad.

Janna Breslin

Janna Breslin was born and raised in Southern California and is a former pharmaceutical representative for one of the leading Pharmaceutical companies in the world.

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