Most of us can understand how ruminating too much on negative thoughts or experiences can be detrimental to our mental health. On the other hand, while trying to embrace positivity by practicing gratitude and spreading love amongst your friends and family can be helpful, too much positivity can be harmful towards our mental wellness too. If you’ve ever shared something painful with someone only to be met with a comment like “it could be worse! Look on the bright side…” or “that’s a negative way of looking at things, you should be more positive!” then you’ve encountered what can be referred to as toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity refers to the idea that in order to be happy, we need to focus only on positivity and ignore negative thoughts and feelings. While folks that make comments like these are certainly coming from a good place and trying to be encouraging by instilling hope, the reality is that this type of relentless positivity can have some real negative consequences. At its core, toxic positivity oversimplifies the complexity of our emotional experience. The reality is that tragic and difficult things will happen in life, and it’s healthy to experience sadness, grief, and other painful emotions as a result. If someone tells you: “don’t think about white bears,” you’re probably going to have a hard time thinking about anything other than white bears. In psychology, this is called ironic process theory, and it refers to how trying to suppress certain thoughts only makes them more likely to crop up. The same can be said for our emotions – trying to stifle negative emotions only puts more stress on the body and mind, allowing them to build up and become even more destructive as a result.
Despite good intentions, these kinds of overly-positive, overly-simplified comments shut someone down in a moment of courage and vulnerability as they choose to share something painful. It glosses over the very real pain of their struggle and communicates that the listener doesn’t care enough about the speaker enough to sit with the discomfort that comes along with truly listening to their pain. As a result, these kinds of responses can discourage those who are struggling from speaking up about their experiences and reaching out for much-needed support. For those who are dealing with a mental health concern like anxiety or depression, this can be extremely isolating and act as a major roadblock to recovery.
Not only can toxic positivity come off as dismissive, but it can also feel invalidating for those struggling with their mental health. If someone is struggling with depression, for instance, it is probably very difficult for them to even find the “bright side,” let alone focus on it. Offering the advice of “staying positive” or “choosing happiness” puts the burden on the person struggling to be responsible for something they likely have little to no control over – it also can imply that if they have the ability to simply choose happiness, then they must be making the conscious decision to be depressed. This is not the case: mental illnesses, like depression, are real health concerns that often need professional treatment – not just “good vibes” – to ameliorate symptoms.
Lastly, this isn’t to imply that people struggling with their mental health are completely helpless. Many folks living with mental health concerns like anxiety or depression do work hard to take actionable steps that help lessen the severity of symptoms, like improving their sleep hygiene, practicing mindfulness, or staying sober. Toxic positivity doesn’t offer any real advice for how to feel better or take care of ourselves when we’re hurting, though. It encourages us to ignore the signs that we may be struggling and in need of support, and tells us to replace these difficult feelings with trite expressions. Not only that, but oftentimes when someone is sharing something that they’re struggling with, they’re seeking an empathetic ear, not advice. Next time someone shares something painful with you, resist the urge to put a silver lining on their situation – acknowledge their pain, thank them for sharing that with you, and ask how you can help.