What Is Toxic Positivity and Is It Real?

Many people began the coronavirus pandemic with plans to learn a new skill or improve themselves as quarantine forced us to lock down. However, some have discussed how the spirit of focusing on the positives can sometimes tip into an unhealthy pattern.

Here we break down the meaning of toxic positivity and how it can affect us.

Speaking to Newsweek, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) coach Rebecca Lockwood said toxic positivity is a real thing which forms when we ignore or brush over negative situations.

She said: "It is when something negative happens like losing a job, or separation from a partner and people tell you just to look on the bright side, or to stay positive and do not fully allow you to feel how you are feeling."

Clinical psychologist Dr. Glen Hong told Newsweek it is a real phenomenon which has a scientific basis.

He said: "It is real phenomenon and because our brains are wired to survival and being more negative, it leads to unhealthy emotional suppression."

What Is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity is the inclination to focus or rely heavily on optimism in all situations and aspects of life, denying the emotions connected with negative situations.

Boston-based psychotherapist Angela Ficken said: "Toxic positivity is unhelpful because it leaves little room to process or acknowledge what you are feeling, and 'fake it till you make it' doesn't apply to all situations.

Hong said this also has an affect on our physiology: "There have been significant findings that show that individuals who force positivity experience higher blood pressure, decreased well-being and poorer social adjustment.

"Toxic positivity can manifest in a person when they are not being empathic towards themselves. When they are judging negative emotions that they do not like and are forcing themselves to feel positive, it leads to emotional suppression and an emotionally restrictive state."

How Toxic Positivity Affects Us

Ficken explained how toxic positivity can be particularly difficult for those in the work place.

"Toxic positivity at work can create a negative work environment and increase stress levels," Ficken said. "Imagine if you were struggling with your workload and you shared with your co-worker that you were having a hard time keeping up, and their response was 'I don't think the workload is that bad. It will be OK.'

"You might be left feeling even more overwhelmed because they aren't struggling and told you it's not that bad. That response can increase negative thoughts, leave you feeling more alone, and make it even more difficult to get your work done on time."

Lockwood said: "Toxic positivity can manifest itself in situations when something is going wrong, not acknowledging the real stuff going on and trying to brush over it with positive thoughts or positive affirmations.

"This can then leave us feeling guilty when we do feel negative or down because of situations because we are not always able to just think on the bright side because real situations are happening that need acknowledging."

Hong also explained how mental health struggles like depression and anxiety can become worsened with this coping method.

"The result of toxic positivity is lower levels of mental health that lead to greater depression and anxiety, lower physical health, and a difficulty in being able to form meaningful relationships in your life," Hong said.

"The doer in the relationship will often come across disingenuous and angry, while the receiver will feel anxious because of the lack of empathy that is being conveyed."

File photo of friends helping each other
File photo of friends comforting each other at home. To overcome toxic positivity we must acknowledge both negative and positive emotions in our lives. Getty Images

Update 6/30/21: This article was updated with expert comment.