Sometimes 'positive vibes only' is not a helpful way to cope with feelings. This week, Counsellor Sarah Barr takes a look at the problem of toxic positivity.

Toxic positivity is the assumption, that despite a person’s emotional or mental pain or the difficult situation they may be in, they should only have a positive mindset and outlook.

Toxic positivity can be a comment to “look on the bright side”, “think positive and positive things will happen” or “be grateful for what you have.” It can be quote that tells you to “just have to change your outlook to be happy”.

With toxic positivity, negative emotions can often be seen as bad. Instead, positivity and happiness are pushed, and authentic human emotional experiences, which we all experience, are minimised.

Judging yourself for feeling pain, sadness or jealousy, which are all part of the human experience, can often lead to secondary emotions, such as shame.

Toxic positivity, at its core, is an avoidance strategy used to push away and invalidate any internal discomfort we may feel.

But when you avoid your emotions, you actually cause more harm.

Avoidance or suppression of emotional discomfort and feelings can lead to increased anxiety, depression, an overall worsening of mental health.

Some examples of Toxic Positivity you may have experienced:

• When something bad happens, such as losing your job, people tell you to “just stay positive”. While comments such as this are often coming from a good place and meant to offer sympathy, they can also be a way of shutting down anything you may want to say or express.

• After experiencing some type of loss, people tell you that “everything happens for a reason.” Again this statement is often used to help give someone comfort, but it can be a way of avoiding someone else’s pain.

• When you express or verbalise disappointment or sadness, someone may say to you that “happiness is a choice.” This can suggest that if you are feeling negative emotions, then it’s your own choice and your own fault for not “choosing” to be happy.

Sometimes, we just have to sit quietly with someone and listen. Giving permission for them to express how they are really feeling, and to be heard. Without the need to try and ‘fix’ it.

When someone is suffering or going through a difficult time in their lives, they need to know that their emotions are valid and important.

Toxic positivity tells people that the emotions they are feeling are wrong. Creating feelings of shame for that person.  

Toxic positivity functions as an avoidance mechanism. When other people engage in this type of behaviour, it allows them to avoid emotional situations that might make them feel uncomfortable.

Avoiding not so nice emotions, will only damage our mental health and our self-worth. As it denies us the chance to face challenging feelings that may lead to personal growth. It allows us to avoid feeling things that might be painful, but it also denies us the ability to face challenging feelings that can ultimately lead to growth and deeper insight.

It is possible to be optimistic in the face of difficult experiences and challenges. But people going through trauma don’t need to be told to stay positive or feel that they are being judged for not maintaining a ‘happy’ outlook.

ALL our feelings are valid – the good, the bad and even the ugly ones – Accept ALL your feelings and own them.

If you are struggling at the moment please reach out. There is help and support available, talk to your doctor or contact a local counsellor.

Take care, Sarah.