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Being told that it could always be worse when bad news is announced or “there are plenty of other fish in the sea” when we are heartbroken isn’ t always what we want to hear! While these words are always well-intentioned and aimed at comforting us, in the long term, they might well end up having the opposite effect. This is what is known as toxic positivity.

can positivity really be toxic?

We live in a society where there is little room for emotions such as anger, resentment, sadness, and even stress. These emotions are often described as negative, and not expressing or feeling them is valued in many environments. For example, someone who never gets angry or who always seems in full control of their emotions is often admired. This can encourage the denial of unpleas- ant emotions and a positivity taken to the extreme, which can actually become toxic.

what is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity is the denial or rejection of so-called “negative” emotions. It is the idea that we should always maintain a positive attitude, regardless of the situation in which we find ourselves, but also regardless of the emotions we feel. Expressions such as “see the glass half-full,” “everything happens for a reason,” and “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” are all examples of valuing positivity to the detriment of certain emotions. Many psych-pop works or articles encourage these types of practices, claiming for example that you just have to smile in front of the mirror to feel better or say a positive sentence such as “it’s going to be OK” out loud to influence the outcome of a difficult situation.

who is affected?

Until now, few studies have examined toxic positivity in itself, as the concept is quite recent. Little is therefore known about individual predispositions to toxic positivity. It can be hypothesized that it could more strongly affect people who may have been exposed to very negative parents or environments, and who built themselves up by adopting excessive positivity to defend themselves in this environment. Individuals who grew up around people who left little or no room for unpleasant emotions, and who advocated positivity at all costs, might also adopt these so-called “toxic” positive behaviours. Phrases such as “don’t cry,” “stay strong,” “be brave,” “don’t think about it too much,” and “focus on the positive” may encourage the person to repress difficult emotions and discourage them from expressing them.

why “toxic”?

Excessive positivity can indeed become toxic and have harmful effects. First of all, because all emotions are important: whether they are pleasant or not, they all play a role, on both the individual and collective level. Anger encourages us to fight against injustices or assert our rights. Sadness allows us to receive support from our loved ones, and bitterness leads us to set limits with certain people who may have wronged us in the past, for example.

On the personal level, it can lead us to deny our own unpleasant emotions or to mask those deemed less acceptable. Good mental health doesn’t mean being happy all the time or never feeling unpleasant emotions. It’s true that being able to see the positive in more difficult moments can be helpful, but staying positive regardless of the context isn’t. Rejecting the negative aspects of a situation and the emotions associated with them doesn’t help us feel better, and can even have the opposite effect by generating guilt and shame about the emotion felt.

Instead of devoting effort and energy to repressing your emotions, why not work instead on accepting, understanding, welcoming, and naming them appropriately? This advice also applies to children! As a parent, it can be tempting to protect our children from situations that could generate unpleasant emotions. But to be able to become a functional and happy adult, it is necessary for the child to learn how to recognize, work through, and express the difficult emotions that they feel. They are part of the human experience, and we will unfortunately be doing the child a disservice by trying to protect them from these situations at all costs.

Excessive positivity can also harm our interpersonal relationships. Firstly, being able to feel and—above all—express the right emotions to our loved ones allows us to receive the appropriate response from those around us. Then, by being able to lis- ten to and welcome the emotions shared by the people around us without judgement or opposition, we are capable of validating them and making our loved ones feel that they have been heard and that they can confide in us without fear. This promotes more open communication and more authentic relation- ships. Conversely, adopting an exclusively positive discourse by saying to your friend that it’s not so bad, it could be worse, they will come out of it stronger, for example, may send the message to the other person that their emotions are not legitimate, that they are not up to the task, and thereby make them feel misunderstood. Repeatedly exposed to this type of reaction, there is a good chance that the person will eventually decide not to confide in others anymore, or even to deny their emotions.

how do we get out of this?

If some of our loved ones tend to fall into toxic positivity when we open up to them, it may be helpful to mention to the person we are addressing that we don’t expect them to make us feel better or find a solution to the shared issue, but to simply listen to us and validate our feelings. We all have that need to be heard, to feel understood, and to have confirmation that our emotions are normal. The good news is that listening and normalizing what the other person is feeling is actually simpler than trying to find a solution! Most of the time, this approach will also be more effective at helping the other person feel better. Here are four concrete examples of phrases that let you acknowledge the other person’s feelings and express your support without falling into toxic positivity.

Instead of the first sentence, say the second sentence:

It’s not so bad.

I see that this situation is making you             (sad, angry, etc.).

It will be alright.

I’m here for you.

Keep smiling.

What can I do that would make you feel good right now?

Don’t cry.

Do you want a hug?

It could be worse.

This situation must not be easy for you.

Everything happens for a reason.

I know it’s not easy right now, but I’m hopeful that you will be able to get through this ordeal, and I will be here to help you.

In conclusion, I would encourage you to practice validating their dif- ficult emotions when some of your loved ones share their experience with you. Then, observe the beneficial effect on your relationship with them! Of course, don’t hesitate to apply the same approach and show the same compassion to your own emotions.

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