Toxic positivity, often viewed as an overly optimistic perspective regardless of the circumstances, has drawn criticism from many therapists for its role in dismissing or pathologizing negative emotions. However, its prevalent influence and underlying value system wield an equally destructive force.

What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity has been described as an excessively optimistic state, no matter the circumstances. Many therapists writing on toxic positivity are particularly critical of how toxic positivity pathologizes and invalidates negative emotions.

But the underlying value system of toxic positivity is as wildly popular as it is equally destructive. The notion that our mental states

Signs of Toxic Positivity

Below are some common expressions and experiences of toxic positivity to help you recognize how it shows up in everyday life.

  1. Hiding/Masking your true feelings
  2. Trying to “just get on with it” by stuffing/dismissing an emotion(s)
  3. Feeling guilty for feeling what you feel
  4. Minimizing other people’s experiences with “feel good” quotes or statements
  5. Trying to give someone perspective (e.g., “it could be worse”) instead of validating their emotional experience
  6. Shaming or chastising others for expressing frustration or anything other than positivity
  7. Brushing off things that are bothering you with a “It is what it is”

Why Toxic Positivity is Bad for Our Health


To force a positive outlook on pain is to encourage a person to keep silent about their struggles. Most of us don’t want to be seen as a drag or “bad,” so when the choice is between A) be brave and honest or B) pretend like everything is going great, we might be tempted to adopt the latter. Author and researcher Brené Brown teaches in several of her books, presentations and interviews that the energy source of shame is silence, secrecy and judgment. In other words, where there is hiding, secrets and denial, shame is usually in the driver’s seat.

Shame is crippling to the human spirit and one of the most uncomfortable feelings we can feel. Often, we don’t even know that we are feeling shame. Here’s a clue on how to know it’s there, ask yourself, “If they knew __________ about me, what would they think?” or “Something I wouldn’t want the world to know about me is _______________.”  If you can fill in that blank with ANYTHING, whether it be a situation, a feeling, or an experience there is a high likelihood that there is some shame around that.

Suppressed Emotions

Several psychological studies show us that hiding or denying feelings leads to more stress on the body and/or increased difficulty avoiding the distressing thoughts and feelings.

In one study for example, research participants were divided into two groups and shown disturbing medical procedure films while their stress responses were measured (e.g., heart rates, pupil dilation, sweat production). One group was asked to watch the videos while letting their emotions show whereas the second group of subjects were asked to watch the films and act as if nothing were bothering them. And guess what? The participants who suppressed their emotions (acted as if nothing bothered them) had significantly more physiological arousal (Gross and Levenson, 1997). The emotional suppressors may have appeared cool and calm but on the inside stress was erupting!

These types of studies show us that expressing a broad range of emotions (even the “not-so-positive” ones), having words to describe how we feel, and facial expressions to emote (yup that can mean crying) help us regulate our stress response.

When we don’t want to show a part of ourselves, we create a fake face or public persona for the world. That face can sometimes look cheery, with a happy smile, stating, “Everything happens for a reason, it is what it is.” When we go into hiding like that, we deny our truth. The real truth is, life can hurt sometimes. If you’re angry⁠—and the angry feelings aren’t acknowledged⁠—they get buried deep within our body. As described above, suppressed emotions can later manifest in anxietydepression, or even physical illness.

It’s important to acknowledge the reality of our emotions by verbalizing them and moving them out of our bodies. This is what keeps us sane, healthy and relieves us of the tension caused by suppressing the truth. Once we honor our feelings, we embrace ALL of ourselves, the good, the bad and the ugly. And accepting ourselves just as we are is the path to a robust emotional life.

Isolation & Other Relational Problems

In denying our truth, we begin to live inauthentically with ourselves and with the world. We lose connection with ourselves, making it difficult for others to connect and relate to us. We might look unbreakable from the outside, but on the inside we’re just scared little teddy bears longing for a hug.

Have you ever been around a sweet, sugary, “just think happy thoughts” pollyanna kind of person? How comfortable are you with spilling your guts about the deep emotions you’re feeling? Even though that person might have the best intentions in the world, the message they are mindlessly sending is, “only good feelings are allowed in my presence.” Therefore, it makes it really difficult to express anything but “good vibes” around them. Consequently, you end up complying with the implied rules of, “I can only be a certain kind of person around you, I can’t be myself.”

The relationship with yourself, is often reflected in the relationship you have with others. If you can’t be honest about your own feelings, how will you ever be able to hold space for someone else expressing real feelings in your presence? By curating a fake emotional world, we attract more fakeness resulting in counterfeit intimacy and superficial friendships.

Toxic positivity is a hyper-focus on optimism and preferred outcomes. There is a Magical Thinking aspect to Toxic Positivity which denies, and pathologizes negative emotions which emerge from difficult or unsolvable circumstances.

5 Ways to Recognize When a Thought is Mired in Toxic Positivity

  • Toxic Positivity Attributes Omnipotent Power to Your Thoughts. Toxic positivity is best understood as Magical Thinking. While it is true that our thoughts can be powerful avenues for change, we do not “will” things into existence. We also can not make unfortunate realities vanish by the sheer force of our positive intention. We change our circumstances by taking action, not by merely thinking positively.
  • If an Idea Sounds Too Neat and Simple…It Probably Is.  When you have a complex challenge, don’t meet it with simple slogans and trite aspirations. Examine all of your emotions, think logically, decide on a course of action, and embrace the suck.
  • Pain Hurts. And Suffering is Not Always a Choice. Sometimes we don’t get over something..we get through it. Sometimes we suffer. But goal-directed suffering can have meaning and purpose.
  • Toxic Positivity Employs a Binary Language of Absolutes. Beware of all-encompassing words and phrases that exclude complexity. Words like Everything…All…Nothing… Perfect… Abundance. When you have a serious challenge complex thinking is your friend.

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. Friedrich Nietzsche

6 Ways to Support Your Positive Preferences vs. Toxic Positivity

  • Accept The Reality of Negative Emotions. It’s perfectly normal to feel sad, angry, frustrated and hopeless when hardship strikes. Avoiding hurtful emotions works kind of like a boomerang – they come back when you least expect it to hit you in the face. Even positivity expert Barbara Fredrickson says that negative feelings are a normal part of life. What matters is the overall balance between the negative and positive emotions that counts. Instead of pushing your sadness away, the trick is to find a way to deal better with it, so you don’t get stuck into a negative spiral.
  • But Don’t Let Your Self-Talk Become Problem Saturated. Even though chronic illness or tragic life events can have a huge impact on your everyday life, you’re also still you.
  • Summon the Courage to Change the Things You Can.  There’s often something that can be done to improve your situation. Gather your courage and problem solving skills, make a list of possible solutions and start working on it. But, as much as the modern world likes to admit it, not everything is within our control. Not every illness can be cured, not every relationship can pass the test of time, not every problem can be solved overnight. Learning how to accept the things you cannot change is not an easy nor a quick process, but here are some psychological tips that might help.
  • Watch Out For Stinkin’ Thinkin’. It’s completely normal to have negative thoughts once in a while, but sometimes, you can develop negative thinking patterns that aren’t helpful. For example, you might take things too personally or immediately expect the worst case scenario when something doesn’t go as planned. We all make these cognitive errors, but they can be especially persistent when you’re depressed, anxious, stressed or sick. If that’s the case, challenge your thoughts. Is what you’re thinking true? Could there be a more helpful alternative thought?
  • Notice the Good, and Savor Your Better Moments. With all the above in mind, it is possible to train your mind to see things more positively. You don’t need to see the world through rose-colored glasses, but I try believe that savoring the little good things in life makes it easier to get through the big bad ones.
  • Express Your Emotions With Healing in Mind. When you don’t feel heard and understood by your family and friends, try to express your emotions in a constructive way. Maybe you could put your thought on to paper by journaling or find an (online) support group with people who are going through the same problem as you are.
  • Talk to a Friend and Get a Therapist. When you feel hopeless, deeply depressed, panicked or burnt out, please contact your doctor or reach out to a loved one to get you the help you need. Don’t struggle on your own. Always remember it’s a sign of strength to know when to ask for help to better deal with your problems.

Toxic positivity is sneaky.  It seems helpful.  It seems encouraging.  And it seems like a helpful way to comfort someone.  But it’s just the opposite.  Toxic positivity is oversimplified, shaming, and incredibly isolating.

In summary

While the allure of emphasizing positivity remains strong, toxic positivity’s impact is insidious, shaming, and alienating. Recognizing its oversimplified narrative and embracing a balanced acknowledgment of our emotional realities fosters genuine connection, resilience, and authentic engagement with life’s multifaceted experiences.