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Toxic positivity: Why “good vibes only” is destroying mental health

Toxic positivity encourages emotional suppression, which is linked to poor health outcomes.

Amy Rigby

Couched in phrases like “good vibes only” and “don’t be so negative,” toxic positivity denies the reality of painful events and negative emotions for the sake of appearing optimistic. This differs from genuine positivity, which is healthy, because it encourages emotional suppression and thwarts one’s attempts to process trauma and hurt.

Let’s take a closer look at toxic positivity, why it’s harmful and how to move toward genuine positivity.

Is toxic positivity harmful? What the research says

  • People with higher levels of optimism tend to live longer. [1]
  • Thought suppression, particularly around thoughts that might induce negative emotions, is linked to a suppressed immune system. In one study, participants who suppressed thoughts about emotional topics showed a decrease in lymphocytes (white blood cells in the immune system). [2]
  • Accepting negative thoughts and emotions is linked to better psychological health, such as higher life satisfaction and lower depressive symptoms. In a 2017 research article discussing the results of three different studies, the research authors concluded, "Overall, these results suggest that individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may attain better psychological health, in part because acceptance helps them experience less negative emotion in response to stressors." [3
  • Suppressing negative emotions and amplifying positive ones in front of their kids made parents feel less authentic and less emotionally well. [4]
  • And here's an extremely relevant study given the current COVID-19 pandemic: In 2018, during the Zika outbreak, Penn State researchers found that pregnant women who suppressed their fears about the outbreak had higher levels of fear later, prompting a vicious cycle of emotional suppression. [5]
  • Forcing yourself to hide negative emotions may lead to more negative emotions. In one study, people who tried to disguise their feelings of disgust ended up thinking more negatively because they weren’t allowed to express themselves. The study authors wrote, “Previous research had already revealed that people who often suppress their emotions tend to be less healthy.“ [6]

What is toxic positivity?

More than just looking on the bright side of things, toxic positivity specifically denies the reality of the situation. It is a refusal to accept negative events or emotions that are very real. Quite simply, it’s a form of emotional suppression (bottling up the “bad” feelings), a tactic that has been proven by research to be dangerous to your health. 

Toxic positivity involves ignoring your painful emotions and skipping right over to always trying to be positive,” explains licensed psychologist Peggy DeLong, Psy.D. “It can be toxic because we cannot be truly happy if we ignore painful or uncomfortable feelings, thoughts and experiences.”

But wait—isn’t being positive linked to better health outcomes? Yes, but there is a distinction to make between toxic positivity and healthy positivity.

The difference between toxic and healthy positivity is that toxic positivity is about the other person's need for you to feel better,” explains psychotherapist April Bennett, Ed.S, LPC. “It's essentially reactive against us instead of embracing. It also disregards the message that suffering brings, which is always important and needs to be respected.”

Healthy positivity, on the other hand, “does not exclude suffering or disturbance, but instead integrates it and finds a home for it,” Bennett says. “Healthy positivity believes in our ability to be balanced—not as an achievement, but as a state that is always there for us, which when we return to it feels like remembering. Healthy positivity trusts our capacity to heal without excluding any parts of ourselves. … The root of toxic positivity is our own discomfort with suffering, our own or someone else's.” 

What are toxic positivity examples?

Toxic positivity commonly comes up during discussions about grief, a topic that can be uncomfortable for others to hear about, causing them to resort to toxic positivity. I asked therapists and coaches to share some examples.

“Toxic positivity can happen after someone has experienced the death of a loved one,” says DeLong. “Well-meaning friends may say, ‘be happy for the memories,’ ‘focus on the good times,’ ‘at least she lived a long life,’ etc. These statements do not validate the grief, the emotional pain that comes naturally when a loved one dies. Feeling grief is necessary for healing. This is toxic positivity because it does not support the person in feeling the pain, which is necessary for healing.”

“My grief clients frequently report that people are always telling them ‘everything happens for a reason,’” Bennett shares. “What an awful thing to say to someone who is suffering. It tells them not to feel and not to make anyone else uncomfortable with their feeling. Much better to say, ‘I know nothing makes sense or feels good right now, and everything seems meaningless. I'm here for you, and I want to hear about it.’ That statement actually creates meaning in that moment, out of connection.”

“As a personal example, I had spent years denying my own emotional truths by masking them with toxic positivity,” says Joyce Bao, a purpose strategist and life transformation coach. “Instead of admitting some of my negative emotions, such as shame, guilt, fear, I would project an image of positivity and cheerfulness. After years of denying my truths, I ended up burning out at work because I did not want to be vulnerable, to share my truths - that I was struggling, overwhelmed and needed help. Now, standing in my truth is my personal power, and my mission is to help other women own their truth as well!” 

“For many years, I felt guilty about struggling with a failing relationship,” says life coach Claire Pearson. “I was unable to allow myself to feel the hardship because I would always tell myself, ‘it could be worse.’ This is toxic positivity. The truth is, it could have been worse. But that does not change the fact that a relationship I entered into with full hopes of a lifetime love, of raising children together, and having a partner later in life was lost. And I needed to grieve that. I needed to be angry about it.” 

“This came up a lot in the COVID-19 pandemic,” says licensed psychologist Nicole Lacherza-Drew, Psy.D. “There were suddenly these social media posts saying that if you didn’t come out of the pandemic doing great things, there was something wrong with you. If you didn’t come out of the stay-at-home situation learning a new skill or if you weren’t constantly being positive about being ‘safe’ at home instead of ‘stuck’ at home, you were doing something wrong. 

For the COVID-19 pandemic, people were just trying to survive. Many of us got thrown into situations we never imagined and were being told different things. At the end of the day, the pandemic and staying at home during lockdown was detrimental and really sucked for some people, and that’s okay.” 

When does positivity turn toxic?

Positivity turns toxic when someone:

  • Denies something that is real, whether it’s a negative situation or a negative emotion
  • Encourages emotional suppression (e.g., “Don't be so negative! Just focus on the positive.”)
  • Refuses to address a problem
  • Dismisses or minimizes one’s emotions, pain or concerns
  • Shames one’s self or others for feeling certain emotions
  • Insinuates that “negative thinking” caused a bad outcome

Where does toxic positivity come from?

Fear of judgment

Toxic positivity originates from our fear of negative feelings or fear of judgment because of them. For example, we might turn to toxic positivity when we don’t want to be a “downer” to our friends and family. We may fear that, by showing our vulnerability, our loved ones will judge us, so we put on a happy face instead, believing it’ll be easier for them to accept.

Fear of negative emotions

Toxic positivity can also come from our own fear of accepting negative emotions or situations.

“Our biggest fear when we lean into difficult thoughts and emotions is, if we go there, we are going to stay and get stuck there,” explains licensed clinical mental health counselor Windy Ezzell, MA. “This is anxiety and fear lying to us, making us forget our process is real and valid. When our thoughts and emotions are honored and felt, it makes room for clarity, hope and gratitude. This allows us to move through and grow into connection, compassion and trust with ourselves and our tribe. Healthy positivity gives permission for the deep dive to unpack all the feels and then the productive reframe.” 

What is toxic positivity on social media?

Toxic positivity on social media often shows up as an Instagram-perfect photo with a cheerful caption and a hashtag like #GoodVibesOnly or #PositiveVibes to top it off. Many influencers think vulnerability and “negative” emotions will be bad for their brand,  so they often only show the good things, leading followers to erroneously believe that this version of perfection is attainable. It doesn’t validate the very real suffering that other people go through, which in turn, may cause them to suppress those negative feelings and try to appear happy and cheerful to others.

How to be sympathetic but not toxic positivity: Why empathy is the antidote

Okay, so we now know that toxic positivity isn’t helpful and can be downright harmful. So let’s say a friend comes to you with something painful; how can you support them without being toxic positive? I asked some therapists for their best advice, and in the process, discovered toxic positivity’s surprising antidote: empathy.

At first, I thought the cure to toxic positivity would be healthy positivity (being optimistic and focusing on the good after you’ve processed the bad). But I realized through these therapists’ answers that if toxic positivity is essentially saying, “I don’t want you to feel those negative emotions because they make me uncomfortable,” then empathy is the opposite: “I am here to hold space for any and all emotions that you feel right now.”

Here’s what some of these therapists had to share:

“Assure that you are empathising with them and that you are assisting them in openly expressing their feelings and emotions. Validate their emotions and reassure them that whatever they are experiencing is normal and that there is nothing wrong with feeling down and unpleasant. Help them by listening to their problems and not giving them strange advice that may force them to suppress their emotions.”

- Pareen Sehat, MC, registered clinical counselor. 

“Empathy. It takes immense vulnerability to open up to someone, to ask for help or to share their emotions. Leaning into someone’s experience and being mindful of how we respond can be a good start. Asking questions about their experience can help in accessing empathy or sympathy for a friend. Questions like ‘what is that like for you?’ or ‘that’s a lot, how are you handling all of this?’ express interest in the person, show that you care about them and don’t dismiss their experience.” 

- Erin Dierickx, licensed marriage and family therapist associate 

“This one is super easy: listen to them. If you are empathic with their experience, you will be in touch with all their fears. Ask more about the worries, and let them talk as much as they need. … But once a person feels heard, ask if they might have other ideas about how that thing might work out. Is there a way it won’t go that wrong? You aren’t telling them your ideas; you’re asking them to come up with their own ideas. If they have been able to experience your empathy with their pain, they will be more able to generate other possibilities for things getting better. And they will love you more.” 

- Jill Lummus, Psy.D., clinical psychologist

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How to start thinking positively—without resorting to toxic positivity

1. Realize that negative emotions are not bad.

Years ago, when I was going through a dark period and was blaming myself for not feeling a certain way, a wise person told me, “Emotions are morally neutral.” So instead of feeling bad that I was feeling bad, he encouraged me to allow myself to experience the emotions so I wouldn’t be so afraid of them. This allowed me to process them and grow from the experience.

As we saw from the research earlier, suppressing emotions does not work. Often, they will come back stronger. So the first step in being genuinely positive is to understand that negative emotions are not bad and be willing to accept them when they show up.

2. Enlist outside help.

From friends to mentors to coaches to therapists, there’s an entire team out there waiting to support you if you’re ready to build it. Coaching, in particular, can help you define a desired outcome (such as becoming more optimistic) and, through insightful questions and accountability, help you achieve it.

A therapist is a licensed mental health professional who can help you talk through the emotions, identify why you resort to toxic positivity, apply different treatment modalities and diagnose mental illness if present. They can also help you cope with the harm inflicted by others’ toxic positivity. Therapy is a safe space that allows you to just be.

“One of the best things about therapy is that the client gets to feel as hopeless or worried or sad as they need to,” says Lummus. “Therapists don’t tell them not to have those feelings.”

3. Surround yourself with empathetic people.

If you’re not the one using toxic positivity, and instead, are the one experiencing toxic positivity from the people in your life—it’s time to surround yourself with empathetic people. Empathetic friends will not force you to feel anything or call you a downer for being sad. They will journey with you through this tough time.

4. Honor the times when you don’t have the emotional capacity to be positive.

While positive thinking may have helped many cope with the stress of the pandemic these past 17 months, for some, that wasn’t an option or wasn’t enough. Many lost loved ones, lost their livelihoods or struggled with the loneliness of isolation and only had the energy to do what they needed to survive. It’s okay if you don’t have the capacity to be cheerful or positive. And if you don’t, learning how to give yourself the grace and space to just feel the feelings and get through another day is enough.

Remember, positivity is only toxic when it forces you to bypass negative emotions. Don’t skip over the hard stuff; this is where you will grow and be able to move toward genuine positivity.

5. Move toward goal orientation.

In our 20+ years of motivation research, we’ve found that people lean toward one of the two: goal-oriented or problem-solving. Someone who is goal-oriented focuses on a target, a specific outcome they want to achieve. Someone who is a problem solver anticipates potential pitfalls and does what they can to avoid those negative consequences. As such, a problem solver may be seen as negative, when in reality, it’s their strategy for tackling challenges. 

Our latest research from the past year shows that the majority of Americans (60%) focused on problem-solving instead of goals during the pandemic. This makes sense given that many of us were in sheer survival mode as problem after problem popped up. While this helped many of us get through tough times, it’s not really conducive to positive thinking.

One way to become more optimistic is to join our goal catcher program. Through chat-based coaching, you can inspire yourself and others through your achievement of a vision. And the great thing is, because you’ll be focused on achieving a target, you won’t fall into the pit of toxic positivity by being overly concerned with “staying positive.”

Taking leave of toxic positivity

Whether you’ve exhibited toxic positivity or experienced it from others, realize that it’s not a sign of bad intentions, but rather, a misunderstanding of what it means to be an emotionally well person. Often, we erroneously believe that appearing positive, no matter the cost, is what we’re supposed to do. But it’s not. 

Emotional well-being means becoming comfortable with our feelings, even the painful ones, and allowing others to feel what they need to at that moment. Then, and only then, can we begin to exhibit genuine, healthy positivity.

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