CONTRIBUTORSElite AgentMindset and Personal Development

Toxic positivity: When looking on the bright side of life isn’t so bright

There is a dark side when it comes to good vibes and it’s called toxic positivity.

Sometimes, seriously challenging circumstances in life, especially when they all seem to land on your plate all at once, can leave you in a sad or bad mood.

When you are in those negative states of mind, the last advice you want to hear is, “Just be positive,” or “Cheer up, others have it worse”.

Often, these well-intended gestures come from a place of little or no insight into what is actually going on in your world.

These simple so called solutions to often complicated situations can actually be toxic and more harmful than helpful, despite their positive intent.

In a world where positivity is often celebrated and encouraged, it might seem counterintuitive to label any form of positivity as toxic.

However, there can be too much of a good thing.

Enter toxic positivity, a phenomenon that has gained attention in recent years for its potentially harmful effects on mental health.

Understanding toxic positivity

Toxic positivity, also known as excessive positivity or unrealistic optimism, has been examined by psychologists since the 1980s.

The term “toxic positivity” was coined  by J. Halberstam in the 2011 book The Queer Art of Failure, highlighting its detrimental effects.

It refers to the unhealthy practice of managing emotions by ignoring or dismissing negative feelings like anger and sadness.

Socially and in the office environment, especially sales departments, toxic positivity manifests when someone’s negative emotions are brushed off with a suggestion to “stay positive.”

It’s the notion that one should always look on the bright side, find the silver lining, and avoid anything that could be perceived as negative or unpleasant.

This mindset insists that negative thoughts should be avoided, even in situations that naturally provoke sadness or inflict hardship.

By pushing positivity as a coping mechanism, it often dismisses and invalidates true emotional expression.

The psychological impact

Susan Cain, in her 2022 book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, discusses toxic positivity as a societal norm that discourages honest expression of life’s struggles.

In psychology, toxic positivity is viewed as an approach to handling emotions that wrongly assumes positive and negative feelings must always align with the situation at hand.

While it’s healthy to experience emotions that match our circumstances, toxic positivity insists on perpetual optimism, even when facing negative realities.

Clinical psychologist and narcissistic abuse expert Dr Jamie Zuckerman explains that this concept wrongly suggests that any deviation from a positive demeanour is flawed, leading to feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment when negative emotions are invalidated.

Cultural examples of toxic positivity

Unintentionally, you all could add fuel to the toxic positivity fire when you give what you feel is positive and helpful advice.

Statements like, “Don’t be sad, just think positive!” or “Everything happens for a reason” can undermine the validity of someone’s emotions and dismiss their right to feel sad, angry, or upset.

This is known as invalidating emotions.

Saying things like, “Look on the bright side, it could be worse,” or “Just be grateful for what you have,” downplay someone’s suffering, and potentially make them feel guilty for experiencing hardship.

“Just think happy thoughts and your problems will disappear,” ignores the complexity of real-life problems and can prevent people from seeking necessary support or addressing underlying issues.

The harmful effects

The side effects of toxic positivity vary in their severity and duration.

Here are three common and unhealthy outcomes of toxic positivity:

1. Suppressed emotions: Constantly suppressing or ignoring negative emotions can lead to emotional repression, which can have long-term consequences on mental health.

It’s important to acknowledge and process both positive and negative emotions in a healthy way.

2. Unrealistic expectations: The pressure to always be positive can create unrealistic expectations for oneself and others, leading to feelings of inadequacy or failure when one is unable to maintain a cheerful facade at all times.

3. Lack of authenticity: Toxic positivity can promote a culture of inauthenticity, where people feel pressured to hide their true feelings in order to fit in or meet societal expectations, leading to a sense of disconnection and isolation.

The severity and long-term impact on mental fitness and resilience resulting from toxic positivity can be harmful and detrimental if left unchecked.

Therefore, it’s essential to recognise that experiencing a range of emotions, both positive and negative, is a normal and healthy part of being human.

Instead of striving for relentless positivity, strive for emotional authenticity and empathy.

While positivity can be a powerful force for good, it’s important to be mindful of its potential to become toxic when taken to extremes.

By fostering emotional authenticity, empathy, and self-compassion, you can cultivate a healthier and more supportive environment for yourself and those around you.

This week, when you witness situations of potential toxic positivity, rather than dismissing negative emotions, try validating and encouraging healthy emotional expression from yourself and others.

In Part 2 of this series, I will dive deeper into, and focus on further solutions, to toxic positivity and pathways forward to a healthier approach to life’s challenges.

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Shane Kempton

Shane Kempton is the CEO of Harcourts WA and the network high performance coach.