What Is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity is a term that we’re hearing more of in pop psychology, but what does it mean? Basically, the trend is bringing light to when positivity is used to shame others for feeling bad or to paint over negative emotions. Is positivity itself toxic? Certainly not. It’s okay if you’re a naturally upbeat person. In fact, it’s nice to see people being encouraging and positive since we’re often bombarded with negative messages and negative people as we go through life.

Having some optimism is helpful when you’re overcoming difficult situations in life – we all need it to some degree. I’m the first to admit how I love inspiring others to chase their dreams and enjoy the simple things life. However, being positive alone is not the key to maintaining good mental health. It goes much deeper than that.

One of the first things I learned when I took a college counseling course is that positive thinking is not the way to handle negative emotions. Simply “thinking positive” will not undo depression, anxiety, or grief.

Before I go further, I’d like to show you what toxic positivity can look like.

Examples of toxic positivity:

  1. “Get over it/ It could be worse.” Telling people to get over something that has had a real impact on them, such as racism, homophobia, rape culture, loss and grief, depression, anxiety, etc. is cruel. Issues do exist in life and they need to be addressed, even if they’re not warm & fuzzy. If you know someone who has suffered from something traumatic or is currently dealing with negative emotions, suggesting therapy and being there as a friend (while maintaining healthy boundaries) will be a better help to them than slapping down an overused slogan. Be kind. We all feel negative emotions sometimes and it takes time to process them, deal with them, and heal.
  2. “Think positive” or “Stay positive“. I truly believe people mean well when they say this. It’s never easy seeing a loved one going through a tough time; you want to say things that are encouraging, but again, slapping a slogan on their experience is not helpful. The best thing you can do is be there to listen and try not to interject your opinion. Sometimes people need to vent and they’re not looking for advice, just someone to understand.
  3. Telling people that all negative emotions need to be ignored/stifled. This is a very harmful belief and it needs to stop if we’re going to end to the stigma of mental health issues. In fact, painting over negative emotions or ignoring them can hinder your healing and growth. The belief that nothing should ever be difficult or hurtful is what causes much of life’s grief. Let people know it’s okay to feel crappy if something doesn’t work out how they wanted, say you’re sorry they’re having a bad day, etc. It will go a lot further than telling them to think positive.
  4. “Good vibes only.” This sounds upbeat and fun on the surface, but it excludes everyone who’s having a bad day or suffering. We can’t be bubbly and positive all the time. Let’s allow people to feel natural emotions rather than expecting them to fake happiness if they’re not feeling it.

What is not toxic positivity?

  1. Setting boundaries with people. Having boundaries is not meant to hurt others – it is an attempt to make the relationship work in a way that is healthy for both people. Sometimes people have their own things they’re working on or they feel drained when they give too much time to too many people, so they need to manage their energy.
  2. Cutting out people who are detrimental to our mental health. It is okay to remove someone from your life who is abusive or damaging to your peace. However, I recommend setting boundaries with them first if it’s feasible, but you know what is best for you and your life (If your safety is in jeopardy, try to leave as soon as possible). It might be the wakeup call the person needs to finally get help rather than try to take others down with them.
  3. Being happy with your accomplishments. Life is challenging. You’re allowed to celebrate how far you’ve come. You’ve worked hard on yourself. So, celebrate! There will be some people who dislike the presence you have on social media – and that’s okay. You’re not for them. There will be others who will be encouraged by what you’re doing. You never know who you’re inspiring, so don’t dampen your light because some people can’t handle it.

As you can see, positivity doesn’t have much to do with mental health at all. Building mental resiliency is how you begin to heal and overcome negative emotions – that doesn’t happen overnight and it certainly isn’t achieved by reading positivity memes.

There are ways you can train yourself to think that are more productive than thinking positive. These can be learned though cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). You can take a free course online, though I’d recommend seeing a therapist if you can afford it (There are sliding scale options available, depending on what your needs are). I wish that CBT was taught in elementary, secondary, and post secondary schools (and given as a free course in workplaces), because the techniques you learn are so practical and essential to mental health. It’s not your fault if you don’t have the tools yet to help yourself. It’s a learning experience and we all have to start somewhere, right?

I hope you found my blog post today useful and/or insightful. It is by no means a therapy course or an exhaustive list. I’m all about continuous learning, so writing this post was helpful for my own life, too. If you’ve been a part of toxic positivity before, but meant well, then release the guilt and move forward with the knowledge that you can do better next time. ❤

Until I’m back, take good care of yourself and thank you for reading my blog! 🙂

(Photo by Julia Avamotive from Pexels)


  1. accepting our feelings and being honest about the full spectrum of our emotions is healthy. Even and especially regarding negative emotions. Forced positivity is indeed toxic. Thanks for sharing this important information!

  2. Have you listened to the recent Everything Happens podcast with Kate Bowler? They dive into this topic. Pretty interesting.

  3. Thank you for this insightful post, Sara 🙂 It’s true that well-meaning positivity can turn toxic if we’re not careful. I’m naturally a positive or at least a “I’ll soldier on until I get this done” kind of person (somewhat like Zara 😉) and over the years I’ve become more aware and more careful that I don’t miss to acknowledge other people’s struggles just because that’s my way of doing things.

    • I can so relate to you soldiering on. I’m very similar, and in fact, she’s based a lot on myself if I’ll be honest. Some people try to say positivity is toxic itself, which is wrong, as long as we try not to shame others who are having a bad day. I notice that being productive and taking time to enjoy the small things keeps me the most mentally healthy. I give myself space to process emotions as well rather than pushing them aside. Seems to work for me. 🙂

    • Yeah I feel like it’s a projection from people who are afraid to feel bad things then they shame others who are feeling bad things. Yeah I can’t believe CBT isn’t taught to kids, teens, adults, etc. because it’s so practical. Like schools teach us how to do math, write well, etc. but they should also tell us how to handle a crisis or what to do if we feel stuck, etc.

      • Don’t get me started on schools, there’s a heck of a lot they don’t teach.
        I wouldn’t mind but when kids leave school the level of maths and English isn’t great… So yeah. With you here on so many levels

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