Is It Possible To Be Too Positive?

Written on 04/30/2024
Sophie Kirk

We all know that positivity is a good thing. Whether that’s positive thinking to get you through a tough situation, or having a positive attitude when dealing with a difficult customer, there’s a lot of power in positive thought. In fact, studies have proven that positive thinking can reduce anxietyincrease your general happiness, improve your resilience to stress and even help you live longer!

But can you have too much of a good thing? Is it possible for that positive attitude to turn sour, and start causing problems all of its own? Turns out that yes, it is, and you’ve probably come across it in your life already.

What is Toxic Positivity?

Of course, positivity on its own isn’t toxic. Far from it. It’s part of our human nature to try and find silver linings in negative experience. But there’s a wide range of emotions and experiences in the world, and it’s important to feel them all. 

Toxic positivity is the pressure (either from yourself or others) to only show and feel positive emotions. That means suppressing any negative emotions, feelings or reactions, and only showing the world a positive, happy front. Definitions vary, but almost all of them include the idea of minimizing or eliminating painful emotions so that you can be unrealistically optimistic without considering the circumstances of the situation.

On the surface that doesn’t seem too bad, but read it again. Suppressing any of our emotions, good or bad, isn’t good for our mental or physical health. If no single negative thought is allowed to enter your mind, what happens when something bad happens? If your dog gets sick, a loved one passes away, or there’s a large-scale tragedy in the world? Or, if one of your friends is going through a difficult situation and needs some support? Suddenly, that ‘good vibes only’ attitude is unproductive and unhelpful. It can even damage your relationships and your mental health.

How Does Toxic Positivity Impact Your Mental Health?

Toxic positivity is a tricky one, because it can manifest in ways that might seem helpful at a particular moment, but will turn out to be false reassurances in the long run. You can be on the receiving end of it, or you can contribute to it yourself, sometimes without realising it. 

Over time, toxic positivity can make you afraid of being vulnerable and expressing your true feelings. It could invalidated the entire human experience, leading to trauma, isolation and unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with the emotions you can’t express. Funnily enough, toxic positivity actually comes under the same umbrella as gaslighting, since it causes you to question your own sense of reality. A few of the negative things that can come from toxic positivity include:

  • Shame – As we mentioned earlier, toxic positivity triggers guilt and shame at every negative emotion.
  • Less Connection – If you’re dismissed whenever you confide negative emotions to someone, how likely is it you’ll share them again?
  • Reduces wellbeing – Using positivity in certain situation, like when your identity is threatened can lead to lower mental and emotional wellbeing.
  • Lower self-efficacy  - The less we allow ourselves to feel emotions, the less motivated we are to solve the problems.
  • Increased stress  - We actually talked about the impact of stress in a recent blog, so give that a read if you want to find more here.

Being told to feel a certain way, either by friends or by society in general, pushes individuals to feel they have to hide or disguise moments of weakness. The pressure to keep up that mask of happiness and positivity can also make it difficult for people to ask for help because they’re afraid or judgement of rejection.

5 Signs of Toxic Positivity

Figuring out whether someone is being genuinely positive or is struggling with toxic positivity can sometimes feel like playing the worlds hardest ‘Spot the Difference’, but there are a few key things you can look out for in yourself and others.

Feeling guilt for being sad or angry: Negative emotions are part of the wider emotional spectrum that all humans experience. Sadness, anger, grief, frustration – all of these are completely normal things to feel. If you’re struggling with toxic positivity you will still feel these emotions, but then you will feel immense guilt for feeling those things. Because you’re trying to ‘be positive’, and the pressure to not feel or show negative emotions means you’re not ‘doing it properly’.

Dismissing others’ difficult feelings: Toxic positivity also applies to the people around you. If someone in your life is grieving for example, you might tell them that ‘everything happens for a reason’. You might believe you’re being comforting, but this is also a way of avoiding the other person’s pain and trying to find a positive spin on it, even if there isn’t one.

Hiding painful emotions: When you experience difficult or painful emotions, what do you do? Do you share them with someone, or express them in some way? Or do you hide them, pretend they aren’t there and put on a positive face regardless of how you feel inside? This isn’t even a conscious thought process with toxic positivity. If your brain senses a negative emotion, it will automatically suppress it as much as it can. However, that is never far enough, and they will always come to the surface.

Reciting ‘positive’ quotes about hard situations: Having positive affirmations is one thing, but being full of positive quotes that you bring out at every negative experience is another. Phrases like ‘just stay positive’, ‘look on the bright side’ or ‘happiness is a choice’ might seem harmless, but they are unhelpful when in a difficult situation that needs more emotional understanding to handle. In some cases it can even feel like you think that if someone is experiencing negative emotions, it’s their own fault, which is very damaging for the people in your life.

Ignoring your problems: If you behave like an ostrich when life gets hard, things will often get harder. Toxic positivity often means ignoring your problems, whether that’s bills piling up or deadlines overdue, and pretending that everything is fine. That if you go on as normal for long enough, then everything will work itself out. Which, as we know, it won’t do without your active participation!

Nowadays we’re subject to an almost endless onslaught of messages to ‘stay strong and stay positive. And while it’s an important way to combat the endless rush of negativity in the world right now, it’s also important to acknowledge when you feel other emotions, let yourself experience them and process them in a healthy way. That’s the only way you can build resilience and really improve your mental health. At Melp we believe that positivity is important, but not at the cost of your greater mental health. That’s why we provide support, guidance and education around all things mental health in workplaces and schools, as well as offering tailored support through our app. To find out more, just get in touch with our team today.