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What is Toxic Positivity?

We live in a culture that boasts the phrase “good vibes only” on t-shirts, as captions on Instagram and in casual conversation. While “good vibes” are not a bad thing, “good vibes only” negate all other human experiences that do not involve positive feelings.

The phrase makes it seem like negative experiences or negative emotions should be avoided at all costs. As humans, we experience a wide range of emotions; we’re not always happy or positive and that is okay. In fact, it’s normal to have a mix of good vibes and bad vibes throughout the day.

The “good vibes only” view can result in toxic positivity: a belief that no matter what difficult or upsetting situation you may experience, you should maintain a positive mindset. It ignores the fact that you are human and you cannot always be positive. Toxic positivity can take shapes in other phrases like “you’ll get over it,” “other people have it worse,” “everything happens for a reason,” “being negative won’t help,” “look on the bright side,” “happiness is a choice,” or “just stay positive.”

While these statements are usually made with the best of intentions, they are invalidating. If you are expressing feelings of sadness or frustration or another negative emotion to a loved one, hearing a reply of “just stay positive” can invalidate your feelings and shut down any further conversation on the topic. Toxic positivity dismisses difficult emotions by maintaining a falsely positive outlook; it takes positivity to an extreme. Practicing optimism and positivity in your life is beneficial for your mental health. However when it is taken to the extreme and all emotions except cheerfulness are ignored, it can be damaging. Toxic positivity uses the “get over it” model of handling painful emotions rather than getting through them by processing your emotions.

To overcome toxic positivity, remind yourself that you are human and that it is okay to feel negative feelings. Tell yourself that your emotions are valid and remember that you do not need to feel shame or guilt for not having “positive vibes only” when facing challenging situations. When you reach out to our friends or family to talk about what is bothering you, you are generally looking for love, support, and validation. The best way to get this kind of response is to model it. Here are some ways to validate others without toxic positivity:

  • “That must be really hard. Is there anything I can do to support you?”

  • “You are not alone; I’m here for you.”

  • “I’m sorry that you’re going through this. Is there anything I can do to make this easier for you?”

  • “It’s okay to cry; it’s important to let it out.”

  • “You are allowed to feel however you feel right now.”

The next time you’re facing an obstacle or dealing with negative emotions, feel your feelings. Recognize how you feel and know that it’s okay to not to have a positive outlook about it. You don’t have to follow the saying “good vibes only.” In fact, you shouldn’t. You will feel a mix of positive and negative emotions as you go through a range of experiences on a daily basis. It’s part of being human. So rather than suffering from toxic positivity, practice validating yourself and others without toxic positivity. Acknowledge your feelings and other’s feelings, so that you can move forward from challenging situations in a healthy manner.


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