Toxic Positivity in Psychology: How to Avoid the Positivity Trap

Toxic Positivity“Just think happy thoughts!”

“Don’t worry, be happy!”

“Look on the bright side!”

“It could be worse!”

“Good vibes only!”

Although well intentioned, these phrases can be downright harmful. It turns out that the phrase “too much of a good thing can be bad” also applies to positivity.

The overgeneralization and encouragement of happy emotions across all areas is referred to as ‘toxic positivity.’ How can positivity be toxic, you may ask? Positivity has a time and place, and if ill timed or relied on in an inappropriate situation, positivity has the potential to be dangerous. Everything in moderation.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology, including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.

What Is Toxic Positivity According to Psychology?

Let’s begin with what toxic positivity is not. Toxic positivity is not genuine encouragement at the right time. Toxic positivity is maintaining that one should have a positive mindset and exude only positive emotions and thoughts at all times, particularly when things are difficult. This approach is damaging because it discounts and discredits emotions that are not positive.

Toxic positivity can be described as rejecting, denying, or displacing “any acknowledgement of stress, negativity, and possible disabling features of trauma” (Sokal, Trudel, & Babb, 2020).

Furthermore, Satriopamungkas, Yudani, and Wirawan (2020) define toxic positivity as the constant encouragement and excessive tendency to only see the good side of something and failing to understand the emotion that accompanies the experience.

 

2 Examples of Toxic Positivity

While refilling your coffee mug in the office break room, a coworker vulnerably shares with you that his dog passed away the previous week. Further, last night he found out his wife has cancer, and he feels as though he may soon lose his job.

You respond, “Think positive thoughts.Thinking positive thoughts will not help his situation. In fact, these words have now worsened his situation because they invalidated his emotions. This exchange has now ended because this individual is no longer invited to discuss his concerns.

An abuse victim confides with a family member about the physical and mental abuse she has been enduring, and the family member responds, “Be grateful for what you have. You have a husband who takes care of you financially.”

Encouraging a victim of abuse to experience gratitude devalues her cry for help. This toxic positivity could cause even more danger for this individual, who may now view the abuse as inconsequential.

The family member’s poor response may discourage the victim of abuse from facing the reality of her situation (Sinclair, Hart, & Lomas, 2020). This is not only harmful, but could be deadly.

 

2 Fascinating Research Findings on Toxic Positivity

Campbell-Sills, Barlow, Brown, and Hofmann (2006) studied the difference in physiological effects between people who were asked either to suppress or accept their emotions while watching an emotion-provoking film.

Sixty individuals with anxiety or mood disorder took part in this study. The researchers monitored the participants’ subjective distress, heart rate, skin conductance level, and respiratory sinus arrhythmia before, during, and after the film.

The researchers found that while the subjective responses were equal in both groups, the participants who were asked to suppress their emotions showed an increased heart rate following the film. Higher levels of negative affect, lower levels of positive affect, poorer social adjustment, and decreased wellbeing have been linked to repeated suppression of emotions, as these researchers have concluded.

Positive self-statements were examined by Wood, Perunovic, and Lee (2009) in three interrelated studies and were found to have the most impact on individuals with low self-esteem. Astonishingly, the impact was negative.

Using the self-comparison theory (Talaifar & Swann, 2020) as a lens, positive self-statements may contradict an individual’s self-view, causing the individual to reject the statement or hold onto their original preconception of themselves. In summary, positive self-statements may be beneficial for some people but detrimental to others.

 

How to Avoid Using Toxic Positivity

Showing EmpathyEmpathy is an essential element in any relationship, and we need to meet people where they are in terms of their emotions.

Perpetually having a “good vibes only” mantra devalues people’s emotions and sends the message of rejection, which can be dangerous to relationships.

Why do we sometimes resort to toxic positivity? Because sometimes we just don’t have the right words to say to the person struggling with the negative emotion.

Adjusting the language we use can help us avoid toxic positivity. One should refrain from using phrases such as “it could be worse,” “look on the bright side,” and “be thankful for what you have.” While these positive phrases may seem helpful in encouraging a positive mindset, they could, in fact, be harmful if used at an inappropriate time or for specific events.

See the Harmful to Helpful Toxic Positivity Phrases worksheet listing phrases to avoid using and suggested replacement phrases we can use instead. One should refrain from using statements in the first column and instead use the example responses in the second column, particularly when responding to those who confide negative emotions in the workplace and in personal relationships.

To build on this response, suggestions in the third column are particularly helpful for those in a position of authority, such as a teacher or supervisor, and when talking to people with depression.

Considering relationships, both professional and personal, toxic positivity may deter the individual from sharing future struggles with you. It would be deleterious to a coworker’s career if you said that their bombed presentation was “just terrific” and told her, “don’t worry that it offended most of the audience.” Alternatively, you may say, “I know the feeling. Would you like to rehearse our next presentations with each other?”

Perhaps reviewing these Resilience & Adversity Quotes will help you avoid toxic positivity and instead encourage resilience. These quotes help to explain the importance of negative emotions and how to use them to empower yourself.

 

5 Interesting Books on the Topic

1. Toxic Positivity – Theo Tucker

Toxic Positivity

In the foreword, Tucker commands the reader’s attention when describing a situation when toxic positivity could have cost someone their life.

The author recounts a time when he was headed to conduct a Bible study at church. He approached a gentleman who was visibly upset after ending a call on a payphone. He asked the man if he was okay, and the man responded, “No.”

Tucker could have thrown out an empty positive phrase to diffuse the scene; however, what he did next may very well have saved the man’s life. Tucker elicited the help of a nearby elder.

This elder was able to talk to the gentleman and found that he planned to take his life in the parking lot. Things could have ended very differently had toxic positivity been used. Tucker analyzes five seemingly harmless phrases and explains what makes them toxic, offering suggestions for what to say instead.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

2. Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America – Barbara Ehrenreich

Bright-sided

Positive phrases do not pay the mortgage, nor do they cure cancer. Author Barbara Ehrenreich describes toxic positivity as a “reckless optimism” when she was confronted with optimistic statements following her diagnosis with breast cancer.

She explains that it is important to prepare ourselves for life’s challenges, and the ever-cheerful outlook that seems to be taking over America cannot accomplish this. Ehrenreich begs for a change in this cultural attitude.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

3. Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life – Susan David

Emotional Agility

Dr. Susan David introduces emotional agility as what differentiates people who master challenges from people who are thwarted by them.

Dr. David’s life work of studying emotions, happiness, and achievement led her to developing the idea of emotional agility. She defines emotional agility as accepting difficult emotions, making slight changes, and adapting to the presented challenge.

This book explains the importance of experiencing negative emotions and how to turn those experiences into success.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

4. Manage My Emotions: What I Wish I’d Learned in School About Anger, Fear and Love – Kenneth Martz

Manage my emotions

This four-part book not only acknowledges both positive and negative emotions, it also helps readers understand their emotions, leading to a purpose-driven life based on true emotional needs.

Additionally, Dr. Kenneth Martz provides effective self-assessment exercises that support the reader in developing the ability to control emotions and limit the effect of ‘less comfortable emotions.’

These include 8 powerful ways to conquer fear, 14 thoughtful tools to manage anger, and 12 simple exercises to quiet one’s worry.

This book gives an excellent insight into understanding emotions, which is helpful in combating toxic positivity.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

5. Be Positive: Fuck Toxic Positivity – Briah Fleming

Be Positive

Pardon the language of the title; however, this book provides daily affirmations that encourage the reader to create peace and happiness in the way they think, speak, and act, all the while discouraging the “good vibes only” catchphrase.

The affirmations were created to be read, meditated on, and lived by. These mantras are intended to replace the use of toxic positivity.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

Top 4 Podcasts & TED Talks

Dr. Susan David with Brené Brown on the dangers of toxic positivity

Brené Brown sits down with Dr. Susan David, presenter of the TED Talk “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage,” to discuss the negative effects of toxic positivity.

Dr. David shares her very personal experience of how positivity was forced upon her as a child following her father’s diagnosis of terminal cancer and her family’s struggle following his death.

That year, her grade school teacher exercised a monumental activity for her class. Dr. David was handed a blank journal and told to “tell the truth, and write like no one is reading.” This ongoing activity allowed an outlet for Dr. David and enabled her to organize and understand the emotions she was experiencing, despite the toxic positivity she was being exposed and subjected to.

Access this podcast episode.

 

How much is too much?

Dr. Allison Niebes-Davis describes toxic positivity as the minimization and invalidation of some of life’s more painful moments.

As she delineates positivity from toxic positivity, she notes the importance of feeling, expressing, and validating negative emotions. She references the “good vibes only” saying and notes how dangerous this thinking really is.

 

How Toxic Positivity Leads to More Suffering

Mahmoud Khedr shares how toxic positivity causes more suffering than good. Khedr’s personal struggles with mental health, which almost led him to suicide, helped him to conclude that positivity can be toxic in some forms.

He paints a vivid picture of the failures of positivity in inappropriate times. For example, Khedr asks an audience member to imagine that after breaking their arm, Khedr responded, “Just be happy!” instead of taking them to the hospital.

 

The Problem With Positivity

Tiffany Yu begins the presentation by sharing her experience of taking a step back from her overly positive Instagram posts during the wildfires in California and the realization that these posts did not truly reflect how she was actually feeling.

More personally, she shares her experience of internalized toxic positivity. As a child, she was involved in a car accident that killed her father. She believed that by admitting to the car accident and expressing her emotions, she would bring shame to herself and her family.

She later learned that because of hiding these feelings and failing to acknowledge her emotions, she had developed post-traumatic stress disorder. Additionally, she reaffirms the importance of empathy and asserts that relationships are built and become stronger during the vulnerable moments that we share.

 

PositivePsychology.com’s Relevant Resources

The Giving Negative Feedback Positively worksheet from the PositivePsychology.com Toolkit is a helpful tool that can provide guidance on how to deliver negative feedback constructively, while maintaining an effective balance of positivity.

Additionally, 10 Tips for Coping With Your Partner’s Upset is a tool you could use concerning personal relationships. This tool will help you address negative emotions and prevent you from using the harmful terms associated with toxic positivity.

17 Positive Psychology Exercises – If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, this signature collection contains 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.

 

A Take-Home Message

Positivity can be mind altering.

But delivering positivity disingenuously or during unsuitable times can cause toxic positivity.

Toxic positivity in the workplace can damage relationships and business productivity. Martin Seligman’s Theory of Authentic Happiness demonstrates the necessity for negativity. The premise of this theory is that authentic happiness involves developing one’s strengths (Mageed & Mohamed, 2020).

To develop strengths, you must know your needs for improvement. With only positive statements, there is no room for constructive feedback, which is crucial for advancement.

Besides the workplace, an educator must give students feedback, both positive and negative. Likewise, during parent–teacher conferences, the teacher must remain honest while tactfully sharing constructive feedback about the student. Toxic positivity shared during a parent–teacher conference could lead to future problems if the parent only finds out their child is failing after the school year is over.

Positivity isn’t bad.

It is only harmful if it is disingenuously encouraged and when it dismisses other emotions. Thinking positively and encouraging positive vibes has its time and place; however, perhaps we should consider modifying the mantra “good vibes only” to “any vibe accepted” when listening to others and considering our own emotions.

So before uttering another hakuna matata, consider the consequences and apply compassion and empathy instead.

It can be life altering.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

If you wish for access to more tools, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 370 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.

  • 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.
  • David, S. (2016). Emotional agility: Get unstuck, embrace change and thrive in work and life. Penguin.
  • Ehrenreich, B. (2010). Bright-sided: How positive thinking is undermining America. Picador.
  • Fleming, B. (2019). Be positive: Fuck toxic positivity. Author.
  • Mageed, A., & Mohamed, R. (2020). The pursuit of happiness in Eat Pray Love by (2006) Elizabeth Gilbert in relevance to Martin Seligman’s Theory of Authentic Happiness. Journal of the Faculty of Arts Research, 31(120), 2605–2630.
  • Martz, K. (2020). Manage my emotions: What I wish I’d learned in school about anger, fear and love. Author.
  • Satriopamungkas, B., Yudani, H. D., & Wirawan, I. G. N. (2020). Short film design about toxic positivity in Surabaya community. Journal of DKV Adiwarna, 1(16).
  • Sinclair, E., Hart, R., & Lomas, T. (2020). Can positivity be counterproductive when suffering domestic abuse? A narrative review. International Journal of Wellbeing10(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. EdCan, 60(3).
  • Talaifar S., & Swann, W.B. (2020) Self-verification theory. In V. Zeigler-Hill & T. K. Shackelford T.K. (Eds.) Encyclopedia of personality and individual differences. Springer.
  • Tucker, T. R., II. (2020). Toxic positivity. Blurb.
  • 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.

About the Author

Tiffany Sauber Millacci, Ph.D., is an educator for both university students and elementary-aged students. She is a continuous learner who seeks facts through research and is beginning her professional career in writing.

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