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How To Avoid “Toxic Positivity” Without Becoming a Bummer

Have you ever talked to someone about a struggle only to get a response like, “Ah well it’ll get better” or “Just cheer up” or “Don’t have a bad attitude, you’re too blessed to be stressed!”

Perhaps you’ve responded with those phrases yourself. I know I have. And the fact of the matter is, this default of trying to press excessive positivity into a negative situation doesn’t work. These phrases are representative of a wider phenomenon called “Toxic Positivity,” and it’s happening in our workplaces, our social feeds, and even in our own minds.

According to a Science of The People study, almost 80% of people haven’t heard the phrase Toxic Positivity, but almost 70% of them admitted that they’ve experienced it in the past week.

Toxic Positivity is the idea that when positive attitudes and thoughts are pushed to an extreme and occur consistently, it becomes harmful.

What’s the Difference Between Toxically Positive & Just Being an Optimist?

  1. Optimists use empathetic, good thoughts and services to help others through a tough time. It can get toxic when the positive thoughts are used to dismiss other’s difficult feelings, such as reciting reductive, positive quotes like “cheer up bud!” 
  2. Optimists can feel guilt, sadness, and anger, and feel free to express those emotions in a healthy way. A person experiencing toxic positivity represses all bad emotions, and that can build up over time to harm someone.

In-fact, a 2019 study published in the International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, said that “bottling up” bad emotions can lead to more emotional distress long-term, and even make oneself more susceptible to illnesses as the build up of stress reduces your immune system’s ability to fight back.

Why is being excessively positive a bad thing?

Being excessively positive can become toxic because it innately sets a fake reality that everyone is happy all the time, implying that any other emotion is “bad.” The standard for society is to show only positive emotions and neglect the negative ones – always.

Just because a place/person is happy, it doesn’t mean it’s toxically positive. The nuance is, excessively positive places don’t create a safe space for any other emotion and stigmatize fear, guilt, or sadness as “bad.”

“Toxic positivity strips someone away of the validation they deserve and leaves them feeling ‘guilty’. Guilty for ‘contributing to their problems’, for ‘not being strong enough’ to get better by themselves. Instead of searching for ways to deal with the situation, people may start to doubt themselves, at a time when they need their confidence the most,”

If you’ve seen Pixar Animation’s “Inside Out,” you know the main takeaway is to accept sadness, fear, AND all our positive and ‘non-positive’ feelings as part of who we are. 

Overall, the alternative to toxic positivity isn’t becoming a negative “realist,” it’s simply embracing all spectrums of emotion and supporting those around you empathetically.

How to Avoid Toxic Positivity Without Being a Bummer:


Example of Toxic Positivity in the Workplace: An employee was on a sales call and the customer said something that really hurt their feelings. The situation was resolved but it was still bothering them because what the customer said was exceptionally cruel. It was time for their one-on-one with their manager, and they forced a smile. When telling them about the situation, they completely underplayed the negative reaction in order to avoid “awkwardness.” The manager picked up on cues that the employee was upset, but ignored it.

A certain level of emotions is to be expected in the workplace, especially in customer-facing or employee-centric roles. But it’s impacts are compounded harshly over time, especially when people come to work knowing they have to suppress their authentic emotions due to their team’s preference for positivity. 

Brock Bastian, a professor at the University of Melbourne in the School of Psychological Sciences, and author of The Other Side of Happiness describes toxic positivity as “happiness at all costs”.

“Toxic positivity can create a culture that breeds distrust from employees,” Bastian told AHRI. A lack of trust can spread like an insidious disease, causing employees to hide their mistakes and feel less confident putting new ideas forward.”

An alternative to this situation is to build a workplace environment that makes employees feel safe to let off some steam appropriately.

It starts with team leader authenticity and transparency; let your employees know when something is not going well. And when it’s not going well for them, some better phrases are: “I’m here for you. I’m glad you told me, is there anything I can do to help?”


Example of Toxic Positivity in Social Media: You’re scrolling through Instagram and all you see are happy faces and successful people that all seem to have better bodies and style. Over time, you just can’t help but think to yourself “What am I doing wrong?”

I’ve personally grappled with Toxic Positivity a lot throughout my life, especially as a millennial growing up with the proliferation of social media. Nowadays I’m sure anyone can relate to this. Growing up, all my peers (including myself) showed what was essentially a “highlight reel” of our lives without ever being real about the situation. Now, influencers and businesses post fake ads that make out products to be the cure to every bad thing that’s ever happened in your life, especially during the pandemic.

“The toxic positivity trend took over social media throughout the pandemic,” psychotherapist Elizabeth Beecroft told Dazed. “It seemed that there were a lot of people who were more inclined to post toxic positivity statements and aesthetically pleasing graphics, rather than facing the painful reality of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

As an alternative,  try purposefully following accounts that make you feel good about yourself, or practicing not using social media at all for some periods of time. Also, think about crafting your business / personal social media accounts with a balance of happiness and “realism” 

For example, with some of the businesses I work with in the environmental field, we craft a 70/30 split of positive news/action points about climate change, and the negative impacts (that are just as important for people to be aware of).


Example of Toxic Positivity You Inflict On Yourself: You’re at the computer, working but just can’t focus. You can’t even pinpoint why but everything and everyone is getting under your skin, but you have so much to do. Your self-talk quickly becomes negative as you judge yourself for feeling these emotions — “Why can’t you just focus! Don’t be lazy!”

Many of us judge ourselves for being angry, sad, unfocused, etc. 

As an alternative, treat yourself with kindness. This is easier said than done, and all of us are probably working on this on some level. CEO of InnovatorsBox Monica Kang shares a really great strategy for naming your positive traits like Creativity so that you can manage them better. And you can do the same for your negative ones. I named my negative voice Salt (I don’t know why, don’t ask) and when I start talking negatively to myself, I literally think “Shut up Salt.” Hey, it helps!

Remember: People who contribute to a culture of Toxic Positivity often aren’t doing so intentionally and are often unaware of the concept in general.

Being emotionally vulnerable and expressing it in a healthy way isn’t a one step, easy process. It’s a journey. And being aware that there is such a thing as harmful positivity is the first step to making the change. Also, overcoming Toxic Positivity doesn’t mean you all of a sudden show all sides of yourself to everyone – there’s not always a safe space to do that. Being mindful, patient, and of course, creative, is a great start.

The bottom line is: It’s okay to process your negative emotions and it’s actually better to be transparent about your feelings. 

Doing so will drop the stigma about mental health and show everyone that the world isn’t always puppies, sunshine, and rainbows (Which ironically, makes the puppies, sunshine and rainbows that much more sweeter).

About the Author

Sarah Bloodworth

Sarah Bloodworth

Sarah Bloodworth is a writer and sustainability & culture specialist located in Austin, Texas. She studied Journalism and Environmental Science At The University of Texas at Austin and partly at the University of Sheffield in the UK. She worked as a freelance writer for several years, eventually founding my own LLC where she helped mission-driven organisations understand and connect with their audiences through clear, impactful communications. She now works at Flex International, a global manufacturing partner dedicated to creating products that improve people’s lives and make the world a better place. Her specialties include writing/editing, research, customer relations, community-building, and data. The views Sarah expresses are her’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Flex.

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