Toxic Positivity: Too Much Of A Good Thing?

7 min
Article preview picture

Positive emotions are well-researched stewards of well-being.  By most accounts, being positive is a good thing and learning how to deal with negativity is an important skill to cultivate. Positivity increases subjective well-being, and the upregulating of positive emotions reduces negative thoughts and affect. It also increases our desire to be kind.  What could be wrong with that? Shouldn’t we strive to get as much positivity into our lives as possible?  

Not necessarily.

Toxic positivity is defined as the act of rejecting or denying stress, negativity, or other negative experiences that exist. You know these people.  Everything is good and fine and magnificent—even when it’s not. When someone skips over essential information about a situation or condition, has unrealistic expectations, has too much positivity given the circumstance, or overestimates what they or you can make happen—this is when it becomes toxic. When you can sense the disconnect between the reality and their enthusiastic response, the lack of genuineness and integration is cause for concern.

Toxic positivity comes from the overuse of two defense mechanisms: denial and minimalization. Denial is when there is a blind spot in someone’s thinking. They either refuse to see, understand, or acknowledge something is wrong with their logic. In concert with denial, minimalization sees, understands, and acknowledges the flaw but keeps it so insignificant that it never rises to the level of concern. “It’s not going to happen, and if it does— it’s no big deal,” could be the tattoo on the mind of a toxic positivist.

This is not to smite the intention of the person offering the saccharine feedback. They may be coming from a very loving and caring place. They may be aiming to comfort you, be helpful, and show they care. Or, if the point in question is about themselves, they may actually believe their own wishful thinking. There is a very good chance they may not be aware of how far off they are from reality, or how they sound—and how dismissive their comments can be when they are directed at you. Most truly believe they are being helpful—yet they are not perceived this way.

At the very core of being around someone whose positivity is off-putting is the feeling that we cannot be ourselves. Their artificiality generates a feeling of having to be inauthentic: when we are unable to be genuine because we fear we will not be accepted or challenged, we’ll shut down—or get angry. Suppressing these difficult, negative feelings can make us guilty for even having them. When you are vulnerable yet unable to be honest about what you feel, it signals mistrust—and then we respond with fight or flight

When difficult feelings bubble up because of circumstances – like losing a job, a lover, health, or an opportunity – someone saying you shouldn’t feel bad, look on the bright side, or anything that downplays the true feelings you have will not be helpful. But more than this, it will often leave you feeling unaccepted and blameworthy for the negativity.

Negative emotions are important for getting needs met because they provide motivation for change. To not appreciate them in ourselves, or not have them acknowledged by others, keeps us from fully functioning. As a famous quote from Carl Jung informs us, being whole may have a greater value than feeling good.

Quote by Carl Jung

The Research

One of the goals of Social Network Services (SNS) such as Facebook is to connect people with others sharing similar issues. In a 2022 study on toxic positivity on Facebook, researchers looked at virtual communities devoted to invisible chronic conditions such as endometriosis (a painful condition of abnormal tissue growth in other parts of the pelvis beyond the uterus such as in the ovaries or fallopian tubes). They found that toxic or forced positivity is often based on illogical reasoning and can carry a paternalistic or dismissive tone. People tended to use cliches to respond to someone’s pain, with comments such as, “It’ll get better,” or “Look on the bright side.” This does more to distance people than it does to help. The reason? Other researchers found that through anonymity, SNS creates nearly perfect conditions for toxic positivity to flourish—which destroys feelings of genuine compassion.

When encouraging words are offered in a difficult situation forcing a positive reflection, the effort made is to show empathy.  Yet the forceful effort to make someone have a positive mindset repudiates negative thinking, and the resulting impact is shame. In another study over 90% of the respondents had experiences of toxic positivity and nearly the same percentage chose the phrase, “Be patient, there are still many who are worse than you” as the best example of it.  Over half believed positivity becomes toxic when positive thinking is used incorrectly—and sadness, disappointment, anger, annoyance, and feeling uncomfortable were common responses to this attitude.

In the same study, about 40% were of the opinion that those who do it do not realize it is toxic, and that those guilty of toxic positivity weren’t appropriately encouraging nor validating of feelings. The respondents said that misguided positivists made their comments toxic through comparisons, a lack of empathy, and judgements. About 25% said this resulted in awkward relationships. The research clearly supports what we sense and feel.

The Correction.

If you are looking to curb your use of overly-positive responses, keep one thing in mind:  Listening deeply to what another person is saying will go a long way toward helping you make the right connection. If they are not putting out anything positive, don’t take on the job of trying to make it so. If you want to understand more about different types of listening, check out our article on how to listen using Active Constructive Responding! The key is to match where the person is at—rather than feel responsible for making it better. The analogy that I use to describe this is if someone comes to you with a tablespoon of salt: don’t give them a six-ounce cup of water to put it in. That’s what toxic positivity does. It is the equivalent of saying we don’t have enough space to accept the negativity you are bringing. Instead, become the size of a lake. In doing so – by expanding our compassion and understanding – the same tablespoon of salt will dissolve as the lake accepts it.

Below is a chart with examples coming from a situation where someone has just had a terrible fight with their partner.


Then there is the other side—dealing with someone who is toxic. If you are on the receiving end, the key is to not let it go unnoticed or undealt with. See it as an opportunity to help someone understand how you are truly feeling. It is an opportunity to help them understand—and for you to clarify.  

What is important, first and foremost, is to hit the pause button on their advice. If any of the feelings noted in the above chart are being activated and you are feeling their feedback is disconnected from your truth, find a way to pause, even if you have to interrupt, and then try to say what you would like from them instead.

Now suppose we are using the same example as above—only it is you who have had a terrible fight with your partner, and you are now receiving toxic messages. Here are four ways to press pause and redirect to what you would like from them.

article picture

Over time these first two strategies of pause and redirect should keep you from getting absorbed into the pitfalls of toxic positivity. But if you have repeated conversations with someone who doesn’t evolve their responses for you—you may want to bring the pattern to their attention.

In this instance, you would ask if they would be willing to accept some feedback.  Asking something like: “Can I share an observation with you?” can be a good beginning.  If the person says yes, then it gives you permission to offer the observation. For example, the feedback might be something like: “I am so thankful that you are here for me, and I notice when I am feeling down or bad about something that you try to put a positive spin on it.”  Would you agree with that?”  

Whatever their answer, you’re now in a position of giving them information about how you experience them in conversations, and what it is you would like from them—or what you need. If they are willing, you’ll now have someone who can be there for you in a way that is really helpful. If they say they can’t, don’t want to, or are too upset by the request, then you may want to find someone less toxic, and more aligned with meeting your needs.


Dr. Dan Tomasulo

Written by Dr. Dan Tomasulo, an American psychologist, writer, and professor, and the Academic Director and core faculty at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York. He is the author of Learned Hopefulness: The Power of Positivity to Overcome Depression. Dan’s passion is positive psychology and the science of happiness, helping people focus on their strengths and cultivating their best selves so they can lead meaningful and fulfilling lives.

All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals that influenced this article: The Opposite Of Toxic Positivity; Reflections On Positive Emotions And Upward Spirals; Regulating Positive Emotions: Implications For Promoting Well-Being In Individuals With Depression; Positive Interventions: An Emotion Regulation Perspective.; Mindfulness: Top–Down Or Bottom–Up Emotion Regulation Strategy?; Mindfulness Meditation Activates AltruismIt’s Okay To Be Okay Too. Why Calling Out Teachers’“Toxic Positivity” May Backfire; The Relationship Between Facebook Use And Well-Being Depends On Communication Type And Tie Strength; 'you Got This!': A Critical Discourse Analysis Of Toxic Positivity As A Discursive Construct On Facebook; Toxic Positivity: The Dark Side Of Positive Vibes; Analysis Of The Generation Z's Viewpoint From The Faith-Based Educational Institutions On The Toxic Positivity Phenomena: How And Why?; How To Respond To Toxic Positivity.

Share this story
Read more
  • Article preview
    25 Nov 2022

    What really is "food rage"? "Hangriness" explained

    2 min

    Is there anything more infuriating than a delayed food delivery? Well yes, plenty probably, but there’s nothing quite like facing the wrath of somebody whose lunch hasn’t arrived on time. This specific kind of distress, feeling both hungry and angry at once, has become known as feeling “hangry”.

    Read full article
  • Article preview
    6 Jun 2022

    Embracing An Abundance Mindset Could Change Your Life. Here's How

    3 min

    If you’ve heard of the Law of Attraction, you might be familiar with the concept of an abundance mindset, or a growth mindset. It’s the idea that a total surrender to and trust in the abundance of the universe to provide what we need… will bring us exactly that. It is often talked about in terms of money and wealth, but it can relate to all areas of life, such as love or work. The Law of Attraction states that the energy we put into the world is what we will receive back: that positive thoughts bring positive experiences. So with that in mind, if we are consumed by fear and a belief that there is “not enough” – in what is known as the converse idea of a “scarcity mindset” – we will continue to experience a lack of what we want or think we need. So in theory, to have all of life’s riches rain down on us, all we would have to do is start believing that there is more than enough to go around, and trust that we will get an abundant slice whenever we need it. Sounds easy, right?

    Read full article
  • Article preview
    18 Nov 2022

    What Is Emotional Intelligence

    4 min

    Emotional intelligence is a gauge of someone’s ability to regulate their emotions. Just as we measure cognitive intelligence, or IQ, through certain aptitude tests, emotional intelligence, or EQ, provides a sense of emotional skill and resilience. According to some research, EQ may actually be a greater predictor of success than IQ, with studies finding a correlation between emotional intelligence and academic performance. EQ has also been linked to professional success, greater well-being, better health, and a higher quality of relationships. And to make it even better, emotional intelligence is something that can be learned and developed.

    Read full article
  • Article preview
    6 Apr 2022

    Learning Hopefulness: The 7 Habits of High Hope People

    6 min

    Eighty percent of people with depression relapse. With all of the medicines, psychotherapies, vitamins, alternative therapies, and things you’ve heard about yoga, exercise, and light therapy ー despite everything we’ve thrown at it ー 80% of people who get depressed get depressed again.

    Read full article
  • Article preview
    6 Sep 2022

    Effective Ways to Manage Anger

    5 min

    Anger can bring out the worst in us. It can cause relationship rifts to grow greater, find fits of furiousness fueling violence, and unnecessarily escalate a situation from minimal annoyance to intense rage. But anger is still a normal (and mostly healthy) emotion, and learning to control it can help us to limit loathsome damage. 

    Read full article