Toxic Positivity—Why It's Harmful and What to Say Instead

signs of toxic positivity

Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou

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Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. While there are benefits to being optimistic and engaging in positive thinking, toxic positivity rejects all difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful and often falsely-positive façade.

Having a positive outlook on life is good for your mental well-being. The problem is that life isn't always positive. We all have painful emotions and experiences. Those emotions, while often unpleasant, need to be felt and dealt with openly and honestly to achieve acceptance and greater psychological health. 

Toxic positivity takes positive thinking to an overgeneralized extreme. This attitude doesn't just stress the importance of optimism—it also minimizes and even denies any trace of human emotions not strictly happy or positive.

Toxic positivity means having a "good vibes only" approach to life and discarding any seemingly negative emotions. It denies people the authentic support they need to cope with what they are facing.

Examples of Toxic Positivity

Toxic positivity can take a wide variety of forms. Some examples you may have encountered in your own life include:

  • When something bad happens, such as losing your job, people may say to “just stay positive” or “look on the bright side.” While such comments are often meant to be sympathetic, they can shut down anything the other person might want to say about what they are experiencing.
  • After experiencing some type of loss, people might say that “everything happens for a reason.” While people will make such statements because they believe they are comforting, this is also a way of avoiding the other person's pain. 
  • Upon expressing disappointment or sadness, someone may respond that “happiness is a choice.” This suggests that if someone is feeling negative emotions, it’s their own fault for not “choosing” to be happy.

Such statements are often well-intentioned, or people just don't know what else to say and don't know how to be empathetic. Still, it is important to recognize that toxic positivity can be harmful.

Toxic Positivity vs. Optimism

It is possible to be optimistic in the face of difficult experiences and challenges. But people going through trauma don’t need to be told to stay positive or feel that they are being judged for not maintaining a sunny outlook.

Why Toxic Positivity Is Harmful

Too much positivity is toxic because it can harm people who are going through difficult times. Rather than being able to share genuine human emotions and gain unconditional support, people who are faced with toxic positivity find their feelings dismissed, ignored, or outright invalidated. 

  • It's shaming: Receiving toxic positivity can lead to feelings of shame. It tells people that the emotions they are feeling are unacceptable. When someone is suffering, they need to know that their emotions are valid and that they can find relief and love in their friends and family.
  • It causes guilt: Being toxically positive can also cause feelings of guilt. It sends a message that if you aren't finding a way to feel positive—even in the face of tragedy—you are doing something wrong.
  • It avoids authentic human emotion: Toxic positivity functions as an avoidance mechanism. When people engage in this type of behavior, it allows them to sidestep emotional situations that make them feel uncomfortable. Sometimes we turn these same ideas on ourselves, internalizing them. When we feel difficult emotions, we then discount, dismiss, and deny them.
  • It prevents growth: Toxic positivity allows us to avoid feeling things that might be painful. But this denies us the ability to face challenging feelings that can ultimately lead to growth and deeper insight.

The “positive vibes only” mantra can be particularly grating during times of intense personal distress. When people are coping with situations such as financial troubles, job loss, illness, or the loss of a loved one, being told that they need to look on the bright side can seem downright cruel.

Some even consider toxic positivity a form of gaslighting. This is because it creates a false narrative of reality, often causing you to question what you think and feel.

In some cases, toxic positivity may even be abusive. An abusive person might use it to devalue, dismiss, and minimize another person's emotions and experiences. They might even use it as a way to downplay the seriousness of their own abusive actions.

At their best, toxic positivity statements come off as trite platitudes that let a person off the hook for dealing with other people’s feelings. At their worst, these comments end up causing feelings of shame and blame in people who are often dealing with incredibly difficult situations.

Signs of Toxic Positivity

Toxic positivity can often be subtle. Learning to recognize the signs can help you better identify this type of behavior. Signs that you might be toxically positive include:

  • Brushing off problems rather than facing them
  • Hiding your true feelings behind feel-good quotes that seem socially acceptable
  • Minimizing other people's feelings because they make you uncomfortable
  • Shaming other people when they don't have a positive attitude

It's equally important to know when someone else may be acting toxically positive with you, potentially hurting your mental well-being. Signs that you may be on the receiving end of toxic positivity include:

  • Feeling guilty about being sad, angry, or disappointed
  • Hiding or disguising how you really feel
  • Trying to be stoic or "get over" painful emotions

Sometimes, this type of behavior may serve as a coping mechanism to help people reduce or avoid stress. Rather than face a difficult emotion, people try to avoid it by putting a positive spin on a bad situation. While this might seem like an effective way of coping, denying or dismissing negative emotions can make it more difficult to actually cope effectively with such emotions.

How to Avoid Toxic Positivity

If you recognize toxically positive behaviors in yourself, there are things that you can do to develop a healthier, more supportive approach. Some ideas include:

  • Develop an attitude that "it's okay to not be okay." Instead of having a viewpoint that it's wrong to have negative feelings, accept that it isn't realistic to be okay all the time. Remind yourself that if someone doesn't feel okay, that's perfectly acceptable.
  • Manage your negative emotions, but don't deny them. Negative emotions can cause stress when unchecked. But they can also provide important information that can lead to beneficial changes in your life.
  • Focus on listening to others and showing support. When someone expresses a difficult emotion, don’t shut them down with toxic positivity. Instead, let them know that what they are feeling is normal and you are there to listen. 
Toxic Statements
  • Just stay positive!

  • Good vibes only!

  • It could be worse.

  • Things happen for a reason.

  • Failure isn't an option.

  • Happiness is a choice.

Non-Toxic Alternatives
  • I'm listening.

  • I'm here no matter what.

  • That must be really hard.

  • Sometimes bad things happen. How can I help?

  • Failure is sometimes part of life.

  • Your feelings are valid.

Coping With Toxic Positivity

If someone you know has a tendency to respond to your negative feelings with statements that aren't supportive or emotionally validating, some ways you can respond to toxic positivity include:

  • Be realistic about what you feel. When facing a difficult situation, it’s normal to feel stressed, worried, or even fearful. Don’t expect too much from yourself. Practice self-care and work on taking steps that can help improve your situation.
  • Don't be afraid to challenge the person being toxically positive. While challenging this type of response can be uncomfortable, confronting the person's approach provides them the opportunity to grow. This can be especially helpful if facing toxic positivity at work, helping leaders evaluate the impact of their statements and actions.
  • Know that it’s okay to feel more than one thing. If you are facing a challenge, it’s possible to feel nervous about the future and, at the same time, hopeful that you will succeed. Your emotions can be as complex as the situation itself. 
  • Look for meaning behind what you're going through. "Tragic optimism," or searching for the meaning behind difficult situations, is the opposite of toxic positivity and, according to some, is considered the antidote to this type of response.
  • Notice how you feel. Following “positive” social media accounts can sometimes serve as a source of inspiration but pay attention to how you feel after you view and interact with such content. If you are left with a sense of shame or guilt after seeing “uplifting” posts, it might be due to toxic positivity. In such cases, consider limiting your social media consumption.
  • Put your feelings into words. When going through something hard, think about ways to give voice to your emotions in a way that is productive. Write in a journal or talk to a friend. Research suggests that just putting what you are feeling into words can help lower the intensity of negative feelings.

In the end, give yourself permission to feel your feelings. These feelings are real, valid, and important. They can also provide information and help you see things about a situation that you need to work to change.

This doesn't necessarily mean that you should act on every emotion that you feel. Sometimes it is important to sit with your feelings and give yourself the time and space to process the situation and accept your emotions before you take action. 

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A Word From Verywell

Toxic positivity is often subtle, and many of us have engaged in this type of thinking at one point or another. By learning to recognize it, however, you’re better able to rid yourself of this type of thinking and provide (and receive) more authentic support when you are going through something that isn’t easy.

Start noticing toxic statements and strive to let yourself and others feel your emotions—both the positive and the negative. 

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."