What 'Toxic Positivity' Is — And What It Isn’t 

by Kathy Black
Originally Published: 
Three smiling similar looking women represent toxic positivity with a pink color filter
Scary Mommy and CSA-Printstock/Getty

I was listening to a podcast the other day about how to guide teenagers back into this “semi-normal” life. Two of my kids decided to go back to school, while another one wanted to continue to learn virtually. I’ve noticed a lot of changes in my kids since the pandemic started a year ago, and as their mom, I need help dealing with all the feelings because there have been a lot.

My daughter has always been shy, but she started having more social anxiety since she got older, so this isolating thing has worked for her. However, she now has more anxiety than ever when she needs to see someone.

My other two were excited to go back to school, but they were nervous too.

One of the first things the psychologist said in his guide was to make sure you don’t just say to your kids, “Everything will be fine, don’t worry,” because it doesn’t validate them. It makes them feel ignored, dismissed, and like their feelings are silly and there’s no hope.

Growing up, I watched my mother and grandparents do this. You weren’t allowed to talk about anything bad, especially if it involved a family member. They wanted to keep everything squeaky clean and ignore it if someone had a drinking problem or was struggling with depression.

Whenever I came to my mom with anything her only response was, “It will be fine.” I never felt seen or heard.

Now, as an adult, I often struggle with the “It will be okay” response from my boyfriend. He’s a positive person, which can be good, but I’ve noticed after being with him for a few years he can be a little too positive and try to push his way of thinking onto me. It’s been one of the biggest conflicts in our relationship.

However, he is open to listening to my take on it. I tell him it’s toxic positivity when his child is upset or anxious about something and he tells her to push through it and act like everything is alright.

He’s beginning to realize that when he does and says these things, it’s damaging and makes people feel like he doesn’t care about the way they are feeling.

He thinks it’s because he had a really tough childhood and he was basically left to raise himself. His mother wasn’t around; his father was a drug dealer who was dating women that were young enough to be his daughter. He said he went into survival mode and tried to always stay positive and ignore his family life. It got him through high school where he graduated with honors.

He’s a hard worker who is always happy, yet he tends to indulge in things like compulsive gambling and binge drinking. I’m no psychologist, but I think he struggles with these vices because he’s trained himself to stay in “happy mode” no matter what, and those repressed feelings always find a way to come out somehow, somewhere.

That’s why it’s so important we learn the difference between being positive and toxic positivity — they are two separate things.

We all have a story and go through tough shit. We are also allowed to take time to be sad. And positivity isn’t toxic if you are lifting yourself up even though you are having a bad day. There’s no harm in saying something like, “Yeah, I went through a tough divorce, but I worked hard and am financially independent and feel a lot better emotionally.” That’s called resilience and realizing you are capable, which can make another struggle not seem so bad; that’s not what toxic positivity is.

Gayani DeSilva, MD, tells Health, “Toxic positivity can be described as insincere positivity that leads to harm, needless suffering, or misunderstanding,” Basically, if you are telling someone who is hurting, or struggling through a difficult time they should just walk it off, tough it out, or try meditation and they will be fine, you are being an asshole — even if that’s not your intention.

It’s unsympathetic, and all you’re doing is pushing your agenda onto someone who needs more help. Then they’re left feeling like their emotions aren’t valid, which is a horrible feeling.

We need to listen to each other, especially our kids, and validate how they feel by meeting them with understanding.

Always saying things like “positive vibes only” teaches people to push down their fears, and emotions. It’s trying to make someone not feel the sad or angry feelings they actually are feeling because you can’t or don’t want to deal with those feelings.

Toxic positivity has taught people to fake happiness, which can be so harmful. We need to learn to get comfortable with all of our emotions and normalize the fact humans aren’t meant to be happy all the time.

We don’t have to smile our way through a hard time to show we are strong — what is that teaching our kids? We need to show them we feel different kinds of emotions, we don’t have to keep it together all the time, and that doesn’t make us weak or a failure.

It’s healthy, it’s normal, and when they see us expressing ourselves in different ways, it allows them to feel comfortable to do the same thing.

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