Toxic Positivity: Why is it Harmful?
Updated: Mar 12
TW: Depression, anxiety
“Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset.”
Before University, I had never heard of the term ‘toxic positivity’. It was a feeling I had encountered many times but had never found the words for. The feeling that I would have to act like things were great when they weren’t, whether it was through my own thoughts or the environment around me. Many aspects of society perpetuate the notion that admitting you’re struggling is a sign of weakness, a sign that you’re incapable and lack independence, or that you’re being cynical instead of honest. Although positivity can be an amazing attitude to adopt when you’re in situations that are less than ideal, being truthful—no matter how negative—leads to more positive outcomes.
An article from Vogue highlights a negative aspect of toxic positivity perfectly, stating that “negative emotions – like sadness, anxiety, worry and disappointment – are viewed as inherently “bad”, rather than just a normal part of human existence”. Having this mindset causes people to believe that normal and healthy humans can’t or shouldn’t have negative feelings. An example of this could be when peers constantly act like they are not struggling in order to keep up appearances. This could lead to an individual’s perception of their own struggles to become abnormal. Denormalizing natural feelings like sadness can be extremely damaging to an individual’s mental health. Negative emotions are necessary in understanding and recognising positive ones. As cliché as it sounds, without rain, there isn’t going to be a rainbow.
Another aspect of toxic positivity and its effect on an individual’s mental well-being is the encouragement of suppressing emotions. An article from the BBC states that “by accepting and sitting with the distressing feelings… we can use them as fodder for personal development”. As human beings, we are always looking for ways to improve, whether it’s consciously or subconsciously. To deny yourself the right to be honest about your negative emotions or thoughts can hinder your progress in healing and truly understanding yourself. This can lead to a spiral of deeper issues such as depression or anxiety and cause more problems in life due to the fear of simply asking for help. There is no shame in expressing your struggles and asking for guidance. Creating an environment where individuals are encouraged to be honest about their emotions and connect authentically supports a healthy approach to life for others involved.
According to the Independent, social media produces the “pressure to spotlight the good stuff in life” and “that kind of positive projection can quickly lead to comparison culture”. Toxic positivity is an unfortunate byproduct of social media sites, where many people feel inclined to project a happy, idealised version of themselves. Although being able to share achievements and happy moments can be a good thing, it seems that social media is a predominant factor in the rise of toxic positivity online. It is because of this focus on being perfect that viewers of perfected posts begin to feel inferior due to their lives seeming worse. Despite this though, I still believe there are many positive sides to social media sites. An example of this is the voices that are given to people on social media platforms when discussing topics such as ‘toxic positivity’. Posts like these are accessible for the average person and therefore reach more people who are willing to be educated and informed on causes and movements like ‘Stop Asian Hate’ or ‘Black Lives Matter’. These are movements that although are unfortunately founded on racism and discrimination, address the reality of injustices in BIPOC communities in order to overcome them through unity.
Despite the frustrating and damaging effects of toxic positivity though, there are also many positive aspects to optimism. Similarly to the necessity of negative emotions, positive emotions are also vital in understanding and discerning all emotions. Being optimistic can save people during bleak times in their lives, or when they’re needing to meet a deadline and need a little push or a sign that they can do it. Keeping genuinely positive can also spread to others which in turn supports unity and healthy communication.
Overall, toxic positivity benefits no one if it is not handled in a balanced and healthy manner. It is important to understand that social media is a place where individuals can control how they are perceived and that comparison is a detrimental attitude to adopt when navigating life. If you ever get the feeling that you should lie about how you feel, remind yourself that it’s okay to struggle. You don’t have to like that film just because all your peers do, and you don’t have to pretend to be happy when you simply are not. It’s healthy to express yourself authentically and it’s positive to surround yourself with people who accept/support that. What is happiness without sadness?