Practices like positive self-talk and affirmations are often recommended by therapists for people with low self-esteem, but rarely do we stop to ask ourselves, “Is too much positivity a bad thing?” Many experts believe it can be — which is exactly why the term “toxic positivity” was first coined and now seems to be a topic of increased discussion after 2020 more than ever.
What is toxic positivity, and why can it be bad for your mental health? Let’s look closer at potential symptoms tied to being “fakely positive,” plus healthier ways to handle the inevitable ups and downs in life in order to come out feeling happier in the long term.
What Is Toxic Positivity?
According to Psychology Today, the phrase toxic positivity refers to “the concept that keeping positive, and keeping positive only, is the right way to live your life. It means only focusing on positive things and rejecting anything that may trigger negative emotions.”
What’s another way to say toxic positivity (also called “forced positivity”)?
While practicing positivity in life does offer some benefits, it’s key to strike a balance regarding how you respond to different emotions. The idea behind too much positivity being harmful is that feeling and processing difficult or negative feelings are equally as important for growth and well-being as feeling the good ones.
The main problem with toxic positivity is that it can create a sense of guilt for feeling negative emotions. When guilt isn’t resolved for many months or even years, it can contribute to chronic stress.
In addition to guilt, other signs and symptoms associated with denial of negative emotions can include:
Self-doubt and feeling inauthentic, due suppressing or lying about how one really feels
Jealousy and envy of others who seem to have happier lives
Resentment and anger
Increased depression and anxiety
Feeling isolated, since you’re pretending to feel a certain way that you don’t
Sense of pressure to appear happy and grateful
Decline in relationship quality
Poor self-esteem and self-trust
Symptoms tied to stress, including changes in appetite, sleep, energy levels, etc.
How can “relentless focus on positivity” actually be dangerous when it comes to your mental health? When someone constantly forces herself or himself to “always look on the bright side,” that person may actually be missing out on important information, life lessons and meaningful relationships.
Potential dangers and drawbacks associated with toxic positivity can include:
Missing out on opportunities for growth
Confronting both positive and negative feelings is one aspect of living a “wholehearted life.” In other words, when you erase the uncomfortable aspects of life, you basically deny yourself a big portion of the human experience. Emotions (both good and bad) help us make sense of things and are a form of guidance. Denying that you have made mistakes, have imperfections and experience failure also robs you of important lessons that can be learned only through experience and self-reflection.
Increased risk for depression
Research has shown that accepting negative emotions, rather than avoiding them, is beneficial for psychological health and well-being. This is called “emotional acceptance,” which was the focus of a 2018 study that investigated its impact on mental health. The study found that when people deny that they are feeling difficult emotions, they wind up suppressing them and feeling less happy than if they dealt with them head on. Similarly, two separate studies found that people who embrace uncomfortable feelings wind up having more compassion for themselves and are at lower risk of feeling depressed.
Feeling like you can relate to someone, and that they are OK with being vulnerable with you and showing his/her imperfections, is what leads to meaningful relationships. This means that if your relationships become more like a “performance of happiness,” in which you avoid difficult conversations or showing how you really feel, you’ll be trading deep and supportive relationships for those that are shallow.
Less engagement in the workplace
In recent years, researchers have begun focusing more on the effects of toxic positivity in the workplace, especially in 2020 when many employees faced unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic. Emerging research shows that when leaders show authentic vulnerability and are honest about challenges, they actually wind up becoming viewed as stronger leaders. Team members at work are also more likely to bond and become cohesive if they perceive that their company is being transparent with them.
Poorer problem solving
Acknowledging negative emotions and working through challenges are both referred to as “resilience-building experiences.” In order to think with a clear head about challenges in our lives and respond in a healthy manner, we have to be willing to address the source of our struggles. Some experts recommend that when it comes to our emotions, we “name them to tame them,” meaning we call our feelings by their names so we can start to work through them.
Physical problems tied to stress
A large body of research suggests that suppressed emotions don’t disappear — rather they stay within your unconscious mind and also in your physical body. Several studies have demonstrated that emotional suppression contributes to increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which governs our “fight or flight” response that is linked to stress. Over time, unresolved emotional stress can deteriorate someone’s health, leading to risk for issues, like heart disease, headaches, muscle pains, insomnia and indigestion.
What is the opposite of toxic positivity? Essentially, “healthy positivity” is remembering that it’s OK to not always be OK.