A positive outlook on life is assumed to be the supreme virtue. But is it always?
I can’t tell you how many times when I expressed personal or professional frustrations, certain friends told me that it’s “all in my head.” With that, they implied that if I only tried to see things in a more positive light, everything would shift. As the esteemed Wayne Dyer said, “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
This statement surely has its place in helping us live happier lives. At the same time, the idea that we can always reframe our experience to be more positive creates immense pressure. If it’s “all in your head,” you theoretically should be able to maintain a positive mindset no matter what, right?
This kind of thinking often breeds toxic positivity, which undermines our wellbeing instead of supporting it.
Interestingly, the same friends who suggested I should annihilate my frustrations by adopting a more positive mindset also acknowledged the power of my vulnerability. “It’s amazing, the way you share your struggles and difficulties,” one friend told me after a sharing circle we attended together. “The way you talk about your feelings opens the space for others to do the same, you know?”
These contradicting comments often gave me a headache. How positive, should we all be, after all? It seems like a certain amount of positive thinking and reframing our experiences is helpful to see life as less of a threat and more of an opportunity. At the same time, being open and honest about “negative” emotions is evidently important, as it validates them as a natural part of being human.
A question arises: what kind of positivity should we pursue and in which situations — and at what point does it become forced, unnatural, or even toxic? The line between the two seems hard to grasp. To try and identify it, we’ll need to dive a bit deeper into what “being positive” even means.
The Negativity-Positivity Spectrum
At first glance, you might assume that a negative and positive outlook is about how you interpret the events in the world. Most of us see it this way: people are either optimists or pessimists about what’s going to happen to them. They either give the benefit of the doubt to strangers, or they approach others with caution, anticipating harm. They either “trust the universe” and live with ease — or, they believe they need to pay for every step forward with blood, sweat, and tears.
In truth, these are just outer reflections of a “positive” or “negative” attitude. The real point of concern, however, is how you see yourself. In other words: being positive or negative is about how you interpret your experiences and translate them into a self-image. It’s about the relationship you have with yourself.
We all use our ongoing life experiences to build and update our identities. The thing is, the information we derive from those experiences isn’t complete or objective. Your mind (or, more precisely, your ego) selects and filters that information, and only a fraction of it gets through to shape your self-image.
The way your mind selects information determines how you see yourself and, as a result, whether you have a predominantly positive or negative outlook on life. This can change from day to day, or even hour-to-hour, depending on such things as your mood, the environment you’re in, the people you’re with, etc. But in the long run, one type of input — positive or negative — gets selected more often than the other. Which one it is will show in your general attitude towards yourself and, by extension, the rest of the world.
Both negative and positive input create opportunities and, at the same time, pose limitations:
Selecting positive input contributes to a more empowering self-story. By paying attention to those thoughts, feelings, and experiences which affirm that you’re a capable and worthy human being, you build a positive self-image. You move closer to the identity you aspire to — for example, a successful businessperson, a flawless signer, or a respected teacher. Your mind skips the information that could threaten your self-image and thus, you may not see some obvious flaws, mistakes, or areas for improvement.
When you select negative input, you pay more attention to the things that threaten your aspirational identity and thus undermine your self-image. For example, you may aspire to be a loving, kind, and supportive mother to your kids. You do a lot of things that are coherent with that identity, but, once in a while, you also “lose it” — you yell at your kids or refuse to play with them. If your mind selects mostly that negative input to construct your self-image, you’ll see yourself as a “bad mother” and easily overlook all the things you did right.
Most people take in a mixture of positive and negative input to construct their self-image. However, the proportions are rarely even. At any given point in life, there’s usually one type of input that dominates your self-perception. As a consequence, you gravitate towards either a “victim” or a “victor” mentality — a specific way of seeing yourself.
Here’s one way of picturing that spectrum of self-perception:
However, our culture praises the “positive” side of the spectrum. Most of us believe that selecting the positive input above the negative is always the “right thing to do.”
When this belief is taken to an extreme, it may breed toxic positivity — an attitude that’s forced, inauthentic, and often downright harmful.
What Is Toxic Positivity and How It Affects Us
Toxic positivity can be directed both towards other people and oneself. Here, I’m going to focus on the latter. As mentioned earlier, the relationship we have with ourselves is causal to how we relate to the rest of the world. It seems sensible to focus on it in the first place.
How can you recognize the attitude of self-inflicted toxic positivity? It happens when you forcefully shut down the negative input coming through your experience and pretend things are better than they feel. This has a lot to do with seeing positivity as a superior attitude and sometimes even a moral imperative.
Here, you’re no longer trying to simply cheer yourself up or look for some upsides to a dire situation for the sake of helping yourself move through it. Rather, you attach “being positive” to your self-image and enter the “victor” mentality. You can no longer accept yourself as a “negative person” because that’d somehow mean you failed.
As a cultural phenomenon, toxic positivity may stem from a misunderstanding of positive psychology. The latter is certainly having a moment and books like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow or Barbara Fredrickson’s Positivity may be among the most influential in popular psychology.
Positive psychology emerged after World War II and offered a counterbalance to a more traditional paradigm that focused almost exclusively on treating disorders, pathology, and trauma. PP, however, showed that we can also improve our lives by nurturing what’s already good and leverage our strengths to become the best versions of ourselves. The main premise is that appreciating positive experiences helps us grow.
But when we take that premise to an extreme and popularize it at scale, it morphs into a caricature of itself. It lays the foundation for the attitude of toxic positivity when only “positive vibes” are allowed and any sign of negativity is pictured as inferior, unnecessary, or “a step back.”
Samara Quintero and Jamie Long from The Psychology Group define toxic positivity as:
“[T]he excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Jamie Zuckerman frames it as more of a collective belief that permeates our culture:
“Toxic positivity is a societal assumption that a person, despite their emotional pain or gravity of their situation, should only strive to have a positive outlook.
Both definitions bring our attention to something important: when we focus only on what we consider positive, we superficialize our experience. Human existence loses depth when we decide that only certain aspects of it are worth acknowledging.
On top of that, when a positive outlook becomes a moral imperative or an indicator of personal success, we may feel shame when we lack it. I experienced it many times; whenever I believed I “should” feel happier than I did, I felt ashamed of myself. “Being negative” seemed equal to failure, especially when I knew that it was theoretically within my power to change my mindset. “It’s all just in your head,” remember?
There are even certain phrases that evoke shame around negative feelings. I’m sure you’ve either heard or used at least some of these:
“Other people have it worse.”
“I only want to be around positive people; negativity sucks out my energy.”
“Think of all the things you can be grateful for!”
“Just focus on the positive.”
That’s where the first step away from toxic positivity is: validating all experiences, without deeming one more superior than the other.
Self-Compassion Blurs the Line Between Positivity and Negativity
From my experience, people who are especially prone to toxic positivity are those who are most afraid of negativity. They may have taken in so much negative input which destroyed their self-image, that they now try to “talk themselves” into positivity. Or, they simply internalized the belief that letting in anything negative is a waste of time and energy — and therefore, should be avoided.
I’ve been in that first group for a long time. As someone who’s struggled with poor self-image and victimizing myself for as long as I can remember, at some point, I embarked on a quest to “become more positive.” I was sick of my constant struggle with low self-esteem and I just decided to pretend it was never the case.
In other words, I tried to compensate for a life-long victim mentality with a huge dose of fake positivity.
On the way, I learned that this could never lead me to authentic happiness. Why? Because the whole distinction between “positivity” and “negativity” is flawed. The fundamental problem isn’t that we have too much or too little positivity; it’s that we’re so rigid about this artificial line of what we should and shouldn’t be experiencing.
The way out of toxic positivity isn’t therefore to be “less positive.” It’s to remove that arbitrary judgment of our experience altogether. Neuropsychologist Judy Ho offers this beautiful reminder:
“One of the best antidotes to toxic positivity is reexamining your value system and understanding that some of the best moments in life, when you truly feel good, are full of mixed emotions.”
How about we adjust the negativity-positivity spectrum I showed you before? There’s no need to believe in such a binary model of human experience. What we see as “positive” and “negative” emotions all have important functions — so why don’t we choose to see them all as valid, exactly as they are?
As the first step towards that, I propose we bend that negativity-positivity spectrum into a circle:
From the perspective of a circle, all the experiences blend together. They’re of equal value and validity, which means you can observe them without identifying with them. Even the victim/victor mentalities become simply states of mind, just another type of experience — instead of seeming like “the truth” about you.
This way, you surpass toxic positivity and integrate it into the circle of self-compassion. That’s right — even trying to force positivity on yourself becomes just another experience to be observed and appreciated!
Cultivate Self-Compassion With the “Yes, and” Strategy
To avoid toxic positivity without also dwelling on the negatives, the first step is to find compassion for yourself. This is what emotional balance entails. It means finding the readiness to accept all parts of your experience as valid and required.
It can also mean consciously choosing to acknowledge the richness and diversity of your experience and realizing how different emotions can coexist next to one another. Author and social worker Jenny Maenpaa calls it a “yes, and” strategy. For example, you can acknowledge:
“I’m afraid of what’s going to happen and I feel excited about the possibilities.”
“I feel annoyed at my partner’s habits and I appreciate how safe they make me feel.”
See how different this is from bulling yourself with the “You should be happy with what you have” kind of orders? The “yes, and” technique allows you to find and appreciate the “positive” without suppressing or denying the “negative.”
And, as Maenpaa says:
“When we give ourselves permission to hold multiple seemingly conflicting truths in our minds at the same time, we can eliminate the tension between them and give room to all of our emotions — both positive and negative.”
Toxic positivity disappears when the “positive” and “negative” stop fighting for your attention. You create space for both and thus, eliminate the need for conflict between them. You can still refer to them as opposites if you like. But, deep down, you understand that both are valid and necessary.
Paradoxically, allowing all experiences may mean that more peace and contentment naturally seep into your experience. You feel happier more often simply because you don’t need to fight for it.
Can you think of an example of toxic positivity in your life? How did it impact you? What did you learn about yourself through this experience?
I’ll be excited to read your comments!