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How Toxic Positivity Can Be Harmful to Mental Health – and What to Do Instead

Positivity and negativity taken to extremes, each bear hallmarks of the other. Here’s how to get the balance right for your mental health.

Positivity and Negativity Are Both Valid

Positivity and Negativity - a Healthy Balance

[Ad] Positivity is great, right? I write about it a lot because, up there with kindness and compassion, it’s one of the most desirable traits there are.

…Well, yes and no. Positivity is wonderful in most situations – but, in some circumstances it’s just not authentic, nor should it be. The freedom to express positivity and negativity when we feel them is vital to our wellbeing.

It’s been a shit show of a year, and nobody should be pretending to feel otherwise. (Unless they actually do, in which case more power to you and please share your secret?)

Even more so, nobody should be subjected to toxic positivity forcing them to feel they should hide their anguish about 2020, the year that kept on giving.

What is Toxic Positivity?

I’ve noticed a phenomena, coined toxic positivity, creeping all over my social media feeds recently. It’s essentially the shutting down of anyone being brave enough to openly share their worries, fears, sadnesses, or stresses, etc – all in the name of being positive.

But this behaviour is inconsiderate and harmful. And the worst thing is that it’s not always conscious – any of us can be guilty of doing this, with the best of intentions.

Woman Laying on Bed With Head in Hands

When Positivity is Negative

Now anybody who knows or follows me will agree that I’m a positive person. Practicing and promoting positivity generally is uplifting for me, and often for others too. It gives me a focus that takes my mind away from its tendency to overthink and spiral. 

But when a person is feeling authentically sad or low, it’s simply not appropriate.

There are situations in which a lack of positivity is the natural and therefore correct response. When we receive bad or disappointing news, it’s both normal and expected to react negatively – and it’s necessary to feel the associated emotions. 

Woman With Head in Hands

Examples of Toxic Positivity

These phrases may seem innocuous, but the casual disregard they imply can actually be damaging:

  • Cheer up, it could be worse.
  • Things are not that bad!
  • At least [fill in the blank].
  • Don’t be so negative!
  • You’ll get over it.
  • People are in a worse position than you.
  • Look for the silver lining!

Misery is not a competition, and being silenced with any of these stock phrases is unhelpful; it minimises and invalidates a person’s experience, and causes repressed feelings – any or all of which may lead to poor mental health.

Woman Looking in Broken Mirror

In many ways it’s similar to toxic masculinity, because it deters people from showing vulnerability, or really any feelings that may make others uncomfortable. But encouraging a state of denial – because those feelings will not simply disappear, they’ll only be hidden – may in turn create guilt, shame, anger, and resentment. 

So how can we get the balance right?

Examples of Acceptance and Validation

These are some alternatives you can say instead of the above:

  • It’s a crap situation.
  • Do you want to talk about it?
  • It’s pretty normal to feel the way you do, given the circumstances.
  • Is there anything we can do that would make you feel better?
  • How can I help?
  • I’m here for you.
Woman Supporting Friend

Positivity and Negativity – Getting the Balance Right

Further to above, here are my personal ‘rules’ for dealing with positivity and negativity, both personally and with my loved ones.

1. All Feelings Are Valid

We cannot control our feelings in the moment – though we can work on them over time. The way we feel is not usually something we choose; in order to change the way we feel we have to accept, analyse, and process. 

Applying objective logic can often help us to be less reactive and more rational. Journaling can be very beneficial to this process.

Wellbeing Journal
Buy My Positivity Project.

2. Negativity Should Be an Accepted Phase

That said, we need the space to sit in our bad feelings…for a while.

Depending on the situation, different lengths of time will be appropriate. For example, a bereavement will warrant far longer than a chipped nail, and redundancy longer than a glass of spilt milk. But the time will come when, for the sake of our mental health, we need to make efforts to live a good life again, and positivity can be helpful here – when you’re ready to embrace it.

If you find yourself in a downward spiral of negativity, you may benefit from professional support from somewhere like BetterHelp.

Woman drinking tea.

3. Offer Compassion and Support

Instead of being dismissive, offer words of hope and encouragement to others. This sensitive gesture can be the catalyst for positive change.

For example, in the current situation helpful things to focus on may include the following:

  • There is a vaccine – this offers hope.
  • Feeling worried or low is entirely normal during a pandemic – this removes any guilt or shame you may feel for your lack of positivity.
  • The situation is forcing us to live more simply, and slowing down can be great for our mental health.
  • Living through this experience has shown us how strong we can be, and is building resilience.
  • If we can get through this, we can get through anything else life throws our way – look how far we’ve come already.
  • There’s a vaccine – more than one! Yes, I know I mentioned this already but it’s the thing that is going to put an end to all this, so it’s worth saying again.
Peaceful Woman Drinking Coffee

4. Practice Self-Care

While empathy and compassion are great traits, being around sustained negativity can be very draining – particularly if it appears unwarranted (not the case during a pandemic!).

If you find yourself beginning to take on the negativity of others, it may be time to step away and take care of yourself for a while.

Our happiness and mental health is our own responsibility. I’ll always advocate for kindness over invalidating somebody else’s experience, but I also advocate for looking after yourself first.


5. Choose Joy

Granted this one may sound simplistic, but there’s something to it. There are a few tricks you can play on yourself to train your mindset to be more positive – I know because I’ve done it.

Growing up I was not a positive person; when I started a family I knew I wanted better for them, and that had to start with me. Here are a few tips you can try:

With practice, it’s entirely possible to think yourself positive. But you need to be ready for it – and that means experiencing your feelings first, even if they’re unpleasant.

Then, you can choose joy.