What Is Toxic Positivity—and Why Is It Dangerous?

Striving to stay upbeat and optimistic can backfire.

There may be a lot of reasons to feel down. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused havoc, leaving many of us with unforeseen physical and mental health concerns. A 2022 World Health Organization (WHO) study revealed a 25% uptick in anxiety and depression worldwide.

So a dose of positivity could be helpful, right? Well, it could—but only if you allow yourself to feel bad too.

What Is Toxic Positivity?

The term "toxic positivity" was around before 2020, but it took the COVID-19 pandemic for many of us to become aware of its insidious effects. Characterized by replacing negative emotions with false reassurances, "toxic positivity can be described as insincere...and lead to harm, needless suffering, or misunderstanding," California-based psychiatrist Gayani DeSilva, MD, told Health.

Toxic positivity is all over social media, in memes—"Positive vibes only!" is a popular message, as is "It could be worse" and "Look on the bright side."

Though these expressions may seem harmless, the problem is that they offer just one way to feel. They insinuate that if you aren't being upbeat and optimistic, then you're doing something wrong.

woman in dark-green t-shirt, frowning and looking up while thinking or feeling guilty, remembering something awkward. Toxic-positivity
Alex Sandoval

Toxic Positivity in the Age of COVID-19

The cultural phenomenon that is toxic positivity has gone into overdrive during the COVID-19 pandemic. "(People were) bombarded with ideas about how this time should be used to write a novel, learn a new language, and find our zen and that we are somehow failing if we are not doing these things," New York board-certified psychiatrist Margaret Seide, MD, told Health.

Some people may have found inner peace and endless silver linings during the pandemic. But the promotion of this approach, however well-meaning it may be, could backfire. "These messages delegitimize the anxiety and heartbreak, robbing us of the right to have bad days," said Dr. Seide.

If you don't let yourself feel any emotion besides happiness or gratitude and instantly shut down any so-called "negative" emotion, you may not be dealing with how you really feel. "You may close the metaphorical closet door on it, but the specter of it looms behind the door, growing scarier and stronger in our minds precisely because we aren't addressing it," said Jenny Maenpaa, licensed clinical social worker and author of Forward in Heels. "There's an expression, 'sunlight is the best disinfectant,' and it means that when we bring the scary things into the light, whether they are memories, emotions, or fears about the future, we can really examine them and take away some of their power to infect us."

It's important to acknowledge that multiple, complex emotions can exist in you all at once, said Maenpaa. For example, you can be grateful to have a roof over your head and hate the job that's continuing to pay you in order to afford that roof.

The Right Way to Be Positive

So how do you put this balance into practice? Maenpaa's favorite strategy for accepting the conflicting emotions we all feel is an old improv strategy called "Yes, and." Here's an example of how to address two divergent feelings: "I'm afraid of what the future holds, and I feel some excitement at the hope some things may change for the better."

"When we give ourselves permission to hold multiple seemingly conflicting truths in our minds at the same time, we can eliminate the tension between them and give room to all of our emotions—both positive and negative," said Maenpaa.

If it's not you but a friend or relative who may need support, use the same philosophy. "It's healthier to acknowledge the pain a person might be experiencing. Ask what they need. It's possible to exude a positive attitude and still interact with others in a caring way. That's when positivity is not toxic," said Dr. DeSilva.

Using Social Media for Good

Unfortunately, social media and the truth often don't go hand in hand. "Even pre-COVID, social media was a tool with which a vulnerable person can compare their worst day to another person's best day," said Dr. Seide. If you're one of many who's struggling to stay positive, it's important to know you're not alone—even if Instagram makes you feel that way.

"For most of us, this is our first pandemic. Therefore, there is no 'normal' response," she said. "There are no self-help books on how to successfully navigate a pandemic. There is only content created by people who have also never lived through a pandemic. We should all be open to the fact that we do not know what to expect from ourselves or from each other."

There may be days where you feel grateful, productive, and positive and days where you don't see any light at the end of the tunnel. "Be flexible and be ready to adjust your definition of a constructive day," said Dr. Seide. "Don't shame yourself or anyone else for feeling frightened or overwhelmed. Expect times when you have difficulty coping with the uncertainty of this pandemic."

And while it can be really, really difficult to "out" yourself on social media by sharing your darkest moments, it might just be a step forward—and a way out of toxic positivity. "You don't know who else you are helping, and there would likely be positive feedback," said Dr. Seide. "My hope is that all the emotion of this situation and the existential questions it brings up make way for real dialogue about bad days and weak moments. Be positive when you can be, but make room for days when you can't."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up to date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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