Why toxic positivity endangers mental health

27 April 2023 dot 4-minute read
Mental health Feel Well Healthy Mind Toxic positivity How to
Toxic positivity creates pressure to look only on the bright side and dismiss negative emotions. (Credit: Shutterstock)
If a positive attitude helps manage stress, research suggests toxic positivity can seriously affect mental health, leading to feelings of guilt, anxiety and inadequacy.
Toxic positivity describes the excessive and unrealistic expectation of having a constant positive outlook, despite the circumstances. It involves suppressing or invalidating negative emotions to present a façade of happiness and satisfaction, often at the expense of true feelings and wellbeing.
While it may be well-intentioned, toxic positivity contributes to an environment that disregards the need to express uncomfortable and painful emotions. Denying the reality of difficult situations can create alienation and a sense of disconnection. Minimising genuine sadness and pain hinders one from processing these emotions, a crucial step when coping with or resolving a distressing situation.

Recognising toxic positivity

Toxic positivity can make you fear being vulnerable and expressing your true feelings. (Credit: Shutterstock)
Toxic positivity manifests in ways that may seem helpful at a particular moment but are false reassurances in the long run. You can be at its receiving end or contribute to it yourself.
This exchange encapsulates how toxic positivity can stir up guilt, shame and inadequacy.
Statement: "Work has been so stressful lately."
Response: "You're lucky to even have a job."
When offered to someone who is struggling, these statements brush off difficult emotions.
  • "It could be worse, like what happened to my relative."
  • "It's good to look on the bright side."
  • "At least you didn't stay in the hospital long."
  • "Keep praying because God has a plan.";
  • "Everything happens for a reason."
Being told to feel a certain way pushes an individual to hide or disguise moments of weakness. In addition, the pressure to present a false sense of positivity makes it difficult for people to seek help or support when they need it because of the fear of judgment or rejection.
Recognising that everyone experiences a range of positive and negative emotions encourages individuals to take charge of their mental wellbeing.

Helpful behaviours for genuine positivity

The ability to accept your own negative emotions allows you to empathise and be compassionate towards others. (Credit: Shutterstock)
AIA brand ambassador and content creator Will Dasovich understands the burden of taking positivity to the extreme.
"There's pressure to maintain this positive image and branding. Only highlighting what's good [can] put pressure on your viewers and followers to live a successful and positive life because that's all they can see you're doing."
Follow these tips to create a more supportive and emotionally healthy environment for yourself and others.

1. Acknowledge negative emotions

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Psychology highlights the importance of validating negative emotions to enhance psychological wellbeing. Recognising negative emotions entails granting yourself permission to experience and articulate sadness, anger, fear and frustration.
Being in touch with your emotions nurtures empathy and teaches you to listen without judgment. It shows compassion towards those experiencing difficult emotions. Affirming what others are feeling shows empathy, which may be more helpful in times of pain or grief.

2. Learn healthy coping mechanisms

Staying active or speaking with a confidante can help you process negative emotions. Then, empower yourself further by talking to a mental health professional who can help you build resilience during stressful times.
A wellness programme like AIA Vitality can connect you with healthcare providers who can prescribe a holistic treatment plan based on your needs.

3. Discover self-expression

The constant pressure to maintain a positive outlook can force people to hide or deny their genuine feelings. They may even be misled to think that sharing painful emotions is unacceptable or shameful.
Will hopes he can emphasise the importance of discussing feelings without fear of judgment or rejection on his podcast.
"One of the main reasons that I started a podcast in the first place is [to have] a place where I can have deep conversations on what I'm going through and what my friends, family and other content creators are going through," Dasovich shares.
"We can open up about stress, anxiety, depression and allow our audience to see what we go through," he adds. "This reminds them that we are human, like everyone else. It reminds them that Instagram and vlogs are highlight reels for all the good stuff happening in our lives. But they should not forget that we're also going through our struggles."
Toxic positivity can be alluring because it gives you an easy way out. However, unlike genuine positivity, it leads you astray from reality. Take the time to acknowledge and unpack your emotions, no matter how difficult. Leaning into discomfort may be challenging, but it will ultimately set you on the path to a more genuine and gratifying life.
Mayo Clinic. 2022. Positive thinking: Stop negative self-talk to reduce stress [online] [Accessed on 30 January 2023]
World Economic Forum. 2021. Toxic positivity: How can we change our attitude towards happiness? [online] [Accessed on 30 January 2023]
Anxiety & Depression Association of America. 2022. Toxic Positivity. [online] [Accessed on 20 January 2023]
Association for Computational Linguistics. 2022. Towards Toxic Positivity Detection. [online] [Accessed on 30 January 2023]
World Economic Forum. 2021. This Is Why Psychologists Are Warning Against 'Toxic Positivity'. [online] [Accessed on 20 January 2023]
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2018. The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: Laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidence. [online] [Accessed on 20 January 2023]
Behaviour and Research Therapy. 2010. Let it be: Accepting negative emotional experiences predicts decreased negative affect and depressive symptoms. [online] [Accessed on 20 January 2023]
University of Minnesota - Taking Charge of Your Survivorship. Toxic Positivity [online] [Accessed on 1 March 2023]
Psychology Today. Toxic Positivity [online] [Accessed on 1 March 2023]

This is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a financial adviser, or medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.

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