How Toxic Positivity Can Ruin Your Relationships and What To Do About It

Ever been told to lighten up, think positive or that everything happens for a reason? These phrases aren't just irritating, they're also examples of toxic positivity—the belief that anything can be overcome if you have a positive mindset.

Although it is often well-intentioned, toxic positivity can encourage people to reject their negative emotions, no matter how valid those feelings are. This attitude can not only impact your mental health, but lead to toxic relationships and loneliness.

Here's how you can spot the signs of toxic positivity in yourself or someone else—and learn to deal with your emotions in a healthy way.

The Difference Between Optimism and Toxic Positivity

There's nothing wrong with a "glass-half-full" approach to life. In fact, research has shown that optimism can boost your mental health and even promote the adoption of healthy lifestyle choices.

On the surface, toxic positivity and optimism appear the same. But toxic positivity is refusing to acknowledge difficult emotions—like refusing to take off your rose-tinted glasses, even when this is doing you or someone else more harm than good.

Optimism, by contrast, encourages you to make the best of the cards you've been dealt, using a positive attitude and the resources available to move forward.

Shawn Katz, a consultant psychologist and psychotherapist, told Newsweek: "It's great to be optimistic and hopeful, but there can also be malignant hope and unhelpful optimism.

"A lot of people have very good intentions, and it might come from their own difficulty in handling negative emotions themselves."

How to avoid toxic positivity
A woman looks sad and bored while her friend brags. Toxic positivity can limit your connections with others, because people find you insincere. AntonioGuillem/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Examples of Toxic Positivity

Toxic positivity isn't new, but awareness of it has risen because of its prevalence on social media. "Inspirational" quotes were all over platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but phrases such as "Good vibes only" and "Delete the negative" can encourage people to ignore difficult emotions even when they're just on screen.

Dealing with those emotions isn't easy, but it is vital for your mental health.

"Having negative emotions is part of the human condition and they serve an important function," said Katz. "To fully develop as a human, you need to learn to accept grief, sadness, loneliness and fear."

Toxic positivity can also be spotted in all kinds of relationships. Whether it's a friend who trauma dumps on you but glosses over your problems, or a partner who dismisses your emotions because "it's not that bad," most people have a friend or family member whose support is only surface level.

Katz explained: "If you're in a relationship and someone is bringing their genuine feelings to you, and you're saying things like 'Don't worry about it' or 'It's all meant to be,' it can actually make someone feel very lonely."

"You're not being fully accepted for who you are. They're saying 'It's OK if you bring the positive emotions but not the negative.'"

If this is happening to you, Katz recommends talking to the person about how their behavior makes you feel and setting boundaries—their reaction will dictate your next move.

"If you've tried to address it and it doesn't change, it's time to extricate yourself from the toxic relationship."

If you're the one telling people to "stop being negative," know that it can limit your connection to others. By sharing only the good and concealing the bad, you may appear inauthentic or untrustworthy.

"Life is hard and life is difficult. If all you can see of someone is the positive, you have a harder time trusting them," Katz added.

Toxic Positivity and Narcissism

Although most people telling you to "look on the bright side" mean well, toxic positivity can also be a sign of narcissism. Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by a constant need for attention, a controlling nature and a lack of self-awareness or empathy. A narcissist may use a "positive mindset" to make you doubt yourself or avoid supporting you emotionally, or even to bypass your boundaries and control you.

"It can be malevolent in intent if being used to gaslight and manipulate you to invalidate your feelings," said Katz.

"Gaslighting" is a form of emotional abuse in which one person manipulates another by making the victim question their thoughts, feelings and reality in general. The gaslighter might use a "positive mindset" to encourage their victim to ignore uncomfortable feelings for their own benefit or to behave a certain way.

If it's a romantic relationship, the victim may need support from family, friends or a therapist to break free. If it's a toxic friend or family member that's doing the gaslighting, setting boundaries can make a big difference. In some cases, however, there is no option other than cutting contact with the perpetrator.

How To Deal With Negative Emotions

Refusing to acknowledge negative emotions will actually prolong your pain.

"A lot of people aren't naturally good at this," said Katz. "You have to be willing to tolerate and sit with uncomfortable feelings. For many, that's a muscle that needs developing."

Ignoring difficult feelings doesn't make them go away. They can manifest in other ways, such as dangerous or destructive behaviors. Or you could find yourself withdrawing or avoiding triggers, causing you to miss out on relationships or experiences that can make your life better.

Therapy can help you learn how to process your emotions in more healthy ways, as can books on the topic. Talking to trusted friends, family members or your partner can also be beneficial, according to Katz, as long as the relationship isn't one-sided and you're there for them in their times of need.

"It's a culture shift," he said. "But there are so many ways you can make space for your negative emotions."

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