annoyed woman and happy woman

We all know someone who’s positive outlook on life seems over the top. Nothing ever gets them down, and they seem to find the silver lining of every situation. Maybe we envy their ability to stay so upbeat, or maybe we find them irritating, but one thing is certain – a perpetual positive mindset isn’t always healthy.

We all want to be happy; that’s a given. And we’re often told the best road to being happy is to keep a positive attitude. Count your blessings, be thankful for what you have, and always look on the bright side. After all, there’s power in staying positive and keeping a sunny outlook, right? Well, yes and no. It turns out that some efforts at positivity are downright toxic and can be damaging.

How Positivity Becomes Toxic

A positive attitude and approach to life isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it should be generally encouraged. The problem with positivity comes when it’s the only thing that’s encouraged, and all other emotions are considered bad or even wrong.

Toxic positivity tells you that feeling sad, angry, worried, or depressed should be minimized or ignored. Invalidating those feelings by making them taboo and suggesting that smiling through it all will make them go away, and everything okay is dangerous. It encourages people to turn away from things that really need to be dealt with and worked through.

Difficult and uncomfortable feelings don’t just go away because you ignore them and mask them with positivity. They will actually grow, becoming more intense, and appear later on, likely in very unhealthy ways. Unaddressed feelings can lead to anger issues, shame, depression, and even abusive behavior. Toxic positivity, rather than being a healthy way to approach life, can really be a method of avoiding things that feel too painful to examine.

What Toxic Positivity Looks Like

Toxic positivity can take on many forms. It’s not just the frustratingly happy person that’s constantly reminding you how lucky you are; it’s also found in messages that try to stifle the range of human emotions that we all experience.

Messages pushing toxic positivity can be seen in social media, ads on TV and radio, motivational speakers, and even friends and family. Although these messages aren’t generally born out of any malintent, by not balancing and acknowledging that life isn’t always a series of positive experiences, it can lead people to believe that there’s something wrong with them if they can’t put a happy and positive spin on everything.

This is especially true right now. As we all live through a pandemic, civil unrest, and the resulting personal fallout that has touched everyone in different ways, positive emotions are hard to find. Yet many want to send the message that there’s something wrong with you if you can’t find the silver lining.

Social media messages telling you to “Choose happiness,” “Use this time to make things better,” and “Look for the blessings” don’t intend to be toxic. But the implication is that you should ignore the painful, frightening emotions that this uncertain and difficult time may be causing. The truth is you shouldn’t.

Friends and family can also turn positivity toxic. Advice to think “happy thoughts” and “focus on the bright side” when things are tough can lead to isolation for the person who struggles to do so. The message that someone can hear when given this kind of advice is, “Stop complaining,” or “I don’t want to hear about your problems.”

This is further perpetuated by those that want to present a one-sided view of life. For instance, the mother on Facebook who makes parenting look like a series of touching, sweet moments punctuated with crafts, playdates, and happily participating in the other selfless acts of raising children. For the moms out there who are struggling – in other words, most of them – this lopsided, overly positive presentation can lead to feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and failure.

How to Strike a Balance Between Reality and Positivity

This is really the question, isn’t it? No one wants to be negative, but how do you prevent being positive from becoming toxic?

It can be a fine line, but striking the balance between a positive approach and the reality of natural emotions is really about staying truthful. Before succumbing to the many platitudes that attempt to smooth out and hide the rough edges of life, recognize and acknowledge the truth of the situation in front of you – whether it’s yours or someone else’s. Then try to be accepting, honest, and supportive.

For example:

If someone is now working completely from home, rather than saying, “Don’t you love working in your pajamas?” ask them, “Are you doing okay with this?” or “Has this change been good or bad for you?”

Instead of telling a new parent, “Kids are amazing! You’re going to love being a mom (or dad)!” let them know that “It’s really hard sometimes and it can be lonely. You’ll love it and hate it. Let me know if you ever want to swap stories.”

If someone becomes sick (with anything), try telling them, “Sometimes life is so hard, I’ll be here for you if you need me.” Or, “I’ll support you in any way I can,” instead of, “You’ll be fine,” or, “Everything happens for a reason.”

When a friend loses a loved one, rather than saying, “They’re in a better place,” consider saying, “Missing them is so hard. Struggling through the sadness can be really difficult. Let me know if you want to talk.”

The point is that coloring the painful parts of life with a rose-colored paintbrush doesn’t really help anyone or make things better. In fact, it can often make them worse if doing so means encouraging others to ignore the difficult feelings that come along.

Being healthy means understanding and dealing with all of your feelings – good and bad. Being a positive influence on others means helping them do this rather than suggesting they suppress painful emotions. So, before you immediately gravitate to “Don’t worry, be happy,” stop and consider whether there may be something worth worrying about and if happiness is the only realistic response.

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