Denying sadness, anxiety, and doubt are forms of “toxic positivity” that aren’t helping you

Are you the type of person who’s all about positive vibes … you look on the bright side, see the cup half full, always mention the silver lining? Well, there’s a fine line between optimism and the dark side — what’s known as toxic positivity.

What defines toxic positivity?

“It’s a narrative that leads people to believe that if they want to create abundant lives and desired outcomes, they can’t have too much doubt, fear, or uncertainty. It’s essentially an attempt to bypass the emotions that make us human, to only focus on the ‘good’, and to live in a perpetual state of monitoring our every thought and emotion so that we only attract what we want,” says business mentor, speaker, and podcast host Lauren Saunders, who supports clients with tools such as mindset work.

“There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ emotions, only the stories we assign to how we feel, and what those feelings mean about us and our capacity to live fulfilled and happy lives.”

Toxic positivity can take on many forms: A motivational quote on your LinkedIn feed, a friend telling you to be grateful for what you have, or even your own inner critic chastising you for having emotions that you’ve attached negative meaning to, such as feeling weak for being upset or stressed.

The Psychology Group — a practice specializing in treating anxiety and depression — defines toxic positivity as the “excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations,” and explains its results in the “denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.”

And while the concept might not even have been on your radar pre-Covid, you’ve probably noticed instances of it during the pandemic. No, you’re not crazy if you felt off about an acquaintance bragging about lockdowns and productivity while your own mental wellbeing tanked under the strain of the uncertainty.

The solution? Being mindful of toxic positivity and opting to embrace the full range of human experiences. Here are four toxic positivity habits to ditch once and for all.

1. Ignoring or suppressing your emotions

“The truth is that we don’t need to ignore or bypass any of our emotions– they’re all important, and they all play a vital role,” says Saunders.

In fact, suppressing your emotions can actually backfire, according to a study where scientists asked people to try not to think of a white bear, but ring a bell if they did. The conclusion? You guessed it: trying to avoid thinking of a white bear only made participants think of a white bear more.

“These observations suggest that attempted thought suppression has paradoxical effects as a self-control strategy, perhaps even producing the very obsession or preoccupation that it is directed against,” wrote the researchers behind the experiment.

So if ignoring or suppressing uncomfortable emotions is a counterproductive strategy, what should you do instead? Saunders recommends starting with awareness. Observe your thoughts and notice the meaning you are giving to the emotions you’re experiencing.

“How can we relate differently to our emotions and allow them to simply be there rather than trying to change them out of fear? What meaning can we assign to feelings of sadness, doubt, or anxiety such that these emotions could actually be considered good or productive?” she says.

“Freedom isn’t found through ridding ourselves of the ‘bad’ emotions and replacing them with more ‘good’ ones. Freedom comes from feeling all emotions as they arise, and not getting wrapped in a negative story about them.”

2. Pretending certain issues don’t exist

Pretending problems don’t exist is also a surefire way to dive into toxic positivity territory. From ignoring the existence of systemic issues when discussing social justice to avoiding facing your own problems, this toxic positivity habit can take on different forms.

Being a highly resilient person who turns challenges into silver linings and focuses on what you can control in the face of adversity is amazing. But pretending everything is rosy when it’s not can be problematic. After all, in order to find solutions, it’s important to tackle an issue head-on and understand it.

3. Telling people to just focus on the good

According to Saunders, “gaslighting people and their experiences telling them to ‘just focus on the good,’” is another toxic positivity habit to avoid.

Again, it can be tricky to tell the difference between uplifting others and spreading toxic positivity, but it’s all about having empathy. When someone is going through something challenging, brushing things off and telling them to focus on the bright side doesn’t help — and it can even make things worse. Listening, understanding, and offering your support are all better approaches.

4. Invalidating or judging yourself

Invalidating or judging yourself is another form of toxic positivity to be mindful of, says Saunders. What does that look like in action?

“Downplaying or gaslighting our own emotions (‘No it’s totally fine, I’m fine!’), letting others invalidate our experiences, becoming anxious about our anxiety (‘worry-ception’) which can lead to a toxic mindset and downward spiral instead of just looking at how we feel rather than trying to ignore it.”

Awareness is key: Start observing your feelings and self-talk. Is your inner critic being extra harsh? Are you telling yourself you shouldn’t be feeling a certain way? Those are signs you’re invalidating and judging yourself.