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Can Positivity Be Harmful?

Hannah Hopper, LPC, NCC 

With so much loss in our world right now, many of those around us (and maybe even we) are struggling to cope.  And yet, when others in our life come to us and are struggling, we often try to focus on the positive things and say something like “look on the bright side” or “it could be worse.” We are a “good vibes only” culture, and when others are truly struggling, we may respond with something positive or cheery that ends up being more hurtful than helpful. There’s nothing wrong with positivity itself, and it can be helpful for shifting attitudes and gaining motivation. But positivity can be detrimental when it undercuts the pain that someone is feeling and ends up delegitimizing real feelings of sadness, fear, or loneliness. This is called toxic positivity, and it’s the assumption that someone should have a positive outlook and attitude on life in spite of severe challenges and emotional pain.

How toxic positivity shows up

Toxic positivity can look like a friend telling you that “at least you already have one child” when you tell them about a recent miscarriage. It can also be a parent discouraging you from complaining about the negative things going on instead of listening to what is really upsetting you. It can even show up in the way that you talk to yourself, like trying to force yourself to focus on what you have to be happy about when you’re truly feeling sad or anxious. It shows up when we try to circumvent or bypass the negative feelings by jumping to the positive ones. Over the long term, this can cause us to see emotions like sadness or fear as something that is bad/to be avoided.

The downside of positivity

The hard part about toxic positivity is that not only does it invalidate true feelings, but it also increases secondary emotions like shame or anger. Negative emotions are seen as bad or something to be avoided at all costs, rather than a normal and natural part of the human experience. Then, when people do experience sadness or difficulty, they believe they’re the only one since those around them are pushing comments about “looking on the bright side.” It can be hard to cope with feelings of sadness, but even harder when you’re being told that you shouldn’t feel sad. Furthermore, toxic positivity can make it feel like you’re defective when you feel upset.

Toxic positivity is really an avoidance strategy, but avoiding emotions actually causes more distress in the long run like disrupted sleep, increased substance use, risk of heart attack, and grief that is prolonged.

What to do instead

When someone comes to you and is talking about the things that are discouraging them, making them feel sad, or just generally upset, the first thing you can do to help is just to listen. Listening helps us to feel understood and like experiencing overwhelming emotions alone. Another way to help someone when they come to you is to validate what they’re feeling. Saying something like “it makes sense that you feel that way” or “that sounds so hard” is a good place to start.

Many people find counseling helpful for finding support and validation for the challenges they’re facing. After being in therapy for some time, it can become easier to start showing yourself compassion and support when life gets difficult. If you’d like to begin counseling in Chicago, you can browse our therapists to find someone that is the right fit for you. You can also contact Symmetry Counseling today by calling 312-578-9990 to get matched with one of our therapists. 


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