The Dangers of Toxic Positivity

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By Courtney Falsey

HBO’s Euphoria is known for producing talked-about moments, but one scene from this past season seemed to hit a collective nerve. In the scene, sixteen-year-old Kat is in her bedroom trying to decipher why she doesn’t like her “perfect” boyfriend. She’s distraught, confused, and filled with a meteoric sense of self-loathing that teenage girls, in particular, can’t seem to escape. Suddenly, a bikini-clad influencer appears with the affirmation that Kat is, “One of the bravest, most beautiful human beings I have ever seen.” Then another influencer pops up, and another, and another, all preaching the same flowery, self-help slogans that populate our social media feeds. Kat protests, saying more than once that she doesn’t feel “healthy” and that they’re not hearing her. But they won’t stop. Instead, they just get louder, eventually descending into something of a Greek chorus, chanting for Kat to “love herself” as she screams in despair.  

Watching this, I was immediately struck… and not for the reason you might think. While of course I could relate to Kat’s frustration, there was a large part of me that identified with her tormentors, too. How many times have you or someone you know uttered the phrase “everything happens for a reason” during a low point? Or rationalized that if you just changed your attitude to a more positive one, things would get better? I know I have. But, I also know that hearing or saying these sentiments during times of distress, no matter how well-intentioned they might be, doesn’t help. That’s what makes this scene so profound: the way that these influencers suffocate Kat with their cookie-cutter inspirational quotes, thereby ignoring her feelings, is a perfect, shining example of the toxic positivity that we as a culture have come to normalize and even aspire to. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase “toxic positivity,” it’s a “forced or false sense of positivity that sounds innocuous on the surface, but basically [conveys] to people that [your] comfort is more important than [someone else’s] emotions,” explains author and renowned Harvard psychologist, Dr. Susan David. This means that during moments of emotional difficulty, oftentimes we seek out or offer a positive spin on the situation that actually dismisses how we or the person we’re consoling are really feeling. When we’re trying to provide support, we do this to avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation, either because we don’t know what to say or we don’t have the tools to meet the person where they are. 

Much of this comes from the fact that we live in a society obsessed with an overnight success story and “effortless perfection” – the idea that we can be and have it all without alluding to the least bit of struggle. We’re taught to just “get on with it” and maintain a sunny outlook at all costs. If we can’t do this, we feel as though there’s something wrong with us. David describes it as a “narrative that constantly leads us away from ‘seeing.’ Not just seeing other people, but seeing ourselves.”

This is harmful for a number of reasons. For one, toxic positivity has convinced us to perceive certain emotions like sadness, anger, loneliness etc. as “wrong” or “bad,” rather than as a normal part of the human experience. Hence, we tend to not want to feel them, and when we do, we feel guilty about it. We look to inspirational quotes and mantras as a way to either sweep the unwanted emotion under the rug or to keep ourselves from obsessing over it. What ends up happening, though, is that in our attempt to soothe ourselves, we get frustrated when we can’t flip a switch and just be happy or “normal” like everyone else we see on social media (where we probably found said quote). When we take the route of trying to convince ourselves that we’re feeling great when we’re really not, we create a false reality, or a version of the world as we wish it were, not as it really is. In layman’s terms, we’re gaslighting ourselves. What’s more, David says there’s no research that suggests toxic positivity is helpful to our mental health. Instead, it pushes aside your feelings which leads to adverse effects, like high levels of depression and anxiety, and a reduced ability to problem solve.   

I want to clarify here that there are, of course, many proven benefits to having a positive outlook on life and engaging with positive thinking. This is not what I’m talking about when I use the term toxic positivity, and it’s important to point out the distinction. There is a difference between making a gratitude list as part of an overall commitment to bettering your mental health (something I try to practice myself) and telling yourself (and anyone who will listen) that you’re doing just great when you’re in the midst of a heart wrenching breakup and you want to cover up the pain. You can both be a positive person and allow yourself to feel your feelings when you have them. These are not mutually exclusive concepts, it’s actually what makes us multi-dimensional human beings and how we grow.

I discovered this many years ago in an acting class (sigh) while performing an exercise where I needed to be angry. But, I couldn’t get angry, I could only get sad. I remember the tears flowing, the teacher yelling, and, despite knowing that there was anger in there, I couldn’t bring it to the surface for the life of me. This went on for a while until I finally blurted out that I was afraid if I let my anger out, I would be an angry person. Of course, there were many factors at play here. For one, I am a woman, and women are conditioned to believe that tears are more socially acceptable than rage. However, I can’t help but look back at this and see all of the ways toxic positivity had been ingrained in me. While I am inherently a sensitive person, disassociating has long been my go-to coping mechanism. I grew up believing I needed to put on a ‘happy face’ even when things weren’t so good at home. This manifested in perfectionist tendencies, so accessing my deep-seated anger felt completely foreign. 

Suppressing the way I felt in the name of staying positive and trying to preserve this outward persona I’d constructed for myself had stunted me in a way. We think that simply carrying on when times are tough is a sign of strength, but in actuality, it takes away from our ability to be vulnerable, and vulnerability is what gives us the means to authentically connect with ourselves and each other. David says to look at the emotions we want to run away from as “signposts,” because often they are trying to tell us about something we need. I think about that day in class and wonder what all that unexpressed anger wanted from me. It was a time in my life where I felt incredibly insecure. If I were to guess now, I think a little self-compassion would have gone a long way.  

I’ve done a lot of work on myself since then, and while I still have a lifetime to go, I’ve started to keep a lookout for the weasely little ways toxic positivity can creep in. When I begin to spiral over having a so-called “negative” emotion or when I feel the urge to jolt myself into a different state of being by turning to a feel-good quote, I catch myself and take a beat. I get curious about what’s really going on. It’s a little trickier when consoling someone. Not offering a line from the silver lining playbook can definitely feel awkward and at times a little clinical. Yet, the ability to just be with someone when they’re going through it is so much more powerful. Everything might happen for a reason, but I would much rather feel my feelings, all of them, than be left on some lonely, existential plane wondering what that reason is. 

Cite Your Sources:

The Dangers of Toxic Positivity with Dr. Susan David - Dare to Lead with Brene Brown 

What is Toxic Positivity? - Very Well Mind 

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