What’s Toxic Positivity?

Toxic Positivity is the concept of suppressing emotions that are experienced as unpleasant such as sadness or anger.
It is an inappropriate overgeneralisation of happiness or a joyful state in response to situations that are distressing or painful when the experience of “negative emotions” is justified.

Note that I put “negative emotions” into “ “. Labelling emotions as inherently “negative” or “positive” is a common practice perpetuating stigma. It would be more appropriate to describe them as “aversive” or “difficult emotions to experience”.

Some example of Toxic Positivity include statements like,

“Just think positive.”

or

“Turn that frown upside down.”

or

“Pull yourself together and smile.”

or

“Cheer up.”.

Further examples include,

“Just be grateful for what you have.”

or

“Think about people who have it worse than you.”

or

“Come on, it’s not that bad!”

Close Up of Pink glazed Donuts with Sprinkles
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You can see what all these statements have in common:

Toxic Positivity invalidates someone’s emotions and minimises their distress. The person may therefore feel misunderstood, alone, like a burden or ashamed. This may then lead to social withdrawal and a worsening of their mental health difficulties.

As a result the person may learn that there is no benefit or one may even be sanctioned for expressing sadness, fear or similar feelings. Suppressing such emotions has been linked to depression and self-harm. The reason for self-medication with alcohol or drugs is often the inability to experience and express emotions in a helpful way. An invalidating environment is seen as one of the contributing factors to the development of Borderline Personality Disorder.

We experience this vast range of emotion for a reason. Each emotion serves a function. In order to allow the emotion, as difficult as it might be to experience it, to serve its function it needs to be acknowledged and expressed in order to be processed and regulated.

Acknowledgement and (appropriate) expression of feelings are the first to steps to healthy emotion regulation.

As parents try and support your child or teenager with this process by asking them to identify their emotion. Name it, to tame it. After they have named it, acknowledge the emotion. Allow it to take up some space. This will make your child feel heard, seen and understood. Sometime that’s all they want. You don’t always need to rescue you them and come up with solutions. Simply being with them might be enough. Experiencing aversive emotions helps us learn to regulate them.

I hope this is helpful.

Please feel free to contact me should you have any questions or wish to discuss some aspects further.

Lukas Dressler+ Psychotherapy.plus

Lukas Dressler (he/him)
Psychologist (MSc.)
Integrative Psychotherapist (MBACP)
for Children and Young People

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Lukas Dressler - Psychotherapy Plus

Counselling Psychologist (MSc.), HCPC Registered, Integrative Psychotherapist for Children and Young People.