Toxic positivity can be defined as the excessive overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across situations. It consists of denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience. Just like anything done in excess, when positivity is used to cover up the human experience, it becomes toxic and allows us to fall into a state of denial and repressed emotions. We know that humans are emotional. We get jealous, angry, resentful, and greedy. By pretending that we are always optimistic, we deny the validity of a genuine human experience.
When a person is being overly positive, it means that they are exhibiting insincere positivity that leads to harm, needless suffering, or misunderstanding. It minimizes the genuine emotions that other people are feeling. It tells them that somehow what they’re feeling is wrong and trivial in the grand scheme of things. This is an important topic to mention especially during the pandemic. The common theme nowadays on social media is “Positive vibes only!” which implies that if you’re not being positive, you’re doing something wrong. It’s contradictory to what people are actually feeling due to worries about unemployment and personal health. And while these people on social media may have good intentions about spreading optimism, it’s important to express healthy levels of optimism without being ignorant of other people’s feelings.
Toxic positivity can take on many forms - it can manifest in both personal and professional life. One specific example is in domestic abuse cases where researchers from London found that misdirected or overgeneralized positivity exacerbates harm and abuse. An optimistic bias can put victims in danger rather than help them out of the situation. In cases like this, the victim must try to get out of the situation with the help of friends and family rather than having a positive outlook for change. With friends, toxic positivity can hurt the friendship because friends may feel that they can’t share how they truly feel without feeling minimized. They must fake happiness and positivity all the time while ignoring all other emotions. At work, toxic positivity can impact efficiency and productivity because problems are not dealt with. Leaders who are overly optimistic create a false sense of security and don’t teach employees how to deal with issues when they arise. Employees who share this toxic trait can be in denial of their weaknesses and be overly confident. Organizations like these cannot last long. Across all situations, when positivity is used as the only means of expressing emotion, it starts to seem fake and unnatural. People need to be able to express their emotions while displaying healthy amounts of optimism.
So, what’s the right way to be positive? Well, the most important element of a healthy mindset is balance. We must accept both positive and negative emotions and try to balance them out. One way to do this is to think of something negative then combine it with something positive using the word “and.” For example, you could think, “I hate being stuck with my family AND I appreciate my family.” This contradiction helps our minds to balance and accept both emotions. We can then open ourselves to a wider range of emotions rather than being stuck only on positivity. By communicating this to our loved ones, we can encourage them to do the same and to have healthy conversations about how we feel. I encourage you to try this easy exercise so that you can start balancing your emotions.
Fisher, M. (2019). How the "culture of positivity" debilitates fear studies. University of Calgary, 1-11. https://prism.ucalgary.ca/handle/1880/110207
Sinclair, E., Hart, R. & Lomas, T. (2020). Can positivity be counterproductive when suffering domestic abuse?: A narrative review. International Journal of West London, 10(1), 26-53. doi:10.5502/ijw.v10i1.754
Weitz, K. (2011). Positivity (happiness) in the workplace and organizational change. International Journal of Management Review, 12(4), 384-412. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2370.2009.00270.x