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Overcoming Toxic Positivity – aka Disqualifying The Negative

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Thank you for stopping by for my ongoing positive self-talk series.  Self-love starts with positive self-talk, and all of that starts with you.  Shifting the way that you think requires the ability to recognize the power of your thoughts.  You can learn to love yourself by changing what you think about yourself and how you talk with yourself.   

We all struggle from time to time with cognitive distortions.  The healthiest person you know will struggle with a little cognitive distortion here and a little exaggeration there.  Doing this here and there won’t impact your mental state in the short term.  However, when you start to do it constantly and become your everyday thinking style, your mental health will suffer. 

What does toxic positivity look like?

Toxic positivity is the belief or assumption that no matter what is going on in a person’s life, they should maintain a positive attitude, manner, and mindset.  Negative emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, or anything uncomfortable are viewed as not O.K. and need to be abandoned for a happy and more positive outlook.  

People who use toxic positivity often do not know how to manage their negative emotions and use toxic positivity to minimize what they are feeling.  These people also sometimes struggle with compassion for themselves when they feel negative emotions and others when struggling.  This can lead to increased anxiety, depression, low self-worth, and self-criticism.    

Here are some examples of what toxic positivity looks like.   

“It could be worse.”

“You just need to stay positive.” 

“Look on the bright side.”

“You should be grateful for what you have.” 

“Just change your outlook and then you will be happy.”

“I am awesome, I am always awesome, and I am never not awesome.”

“I don’t want to hear anything that is negative and if it is negative you need to talk with someone else not me.”    

How toxic positivity can be harmful.

Positivity by itself is not a bad thing.  In fact, it can be the force that keeps you going and motivated to keep striving forward.  But it becomes harmful when it is insincere, forceful, or invalidates real feelings of anxiety, fear, sadness, or hardship.   

For people who experience someone else’s toxic positivity, it can be an invalidating experience to be told, “look on the bright side. Things could be worse.”  Or to feel chastised for feeling a normal range of emotions, including the negative ones. 

People who try to compulsively hold onto positivity distract from what is really going on and will cause more harm than good.  It can give you the impression that there is something wrong with yourself or that you are defective or weak for feeling distressed.  This, in turn, can lead to feelings of shame, isolation, and loneliness because you are not ‘OK’ and quickly snowball into anxiety, depression, low self-worth, and self-criticism.

How to know if you are using toxic positivity in your life. 

You might be if…

You never talk about what is really going on in your life to anyone, and you are always saying things like “I’m great!” (two thumbs up). 

You deny your own emotions and don’t let yourself feel anything but ‘positive emotions.’  As a result, you may feel like you have many superficial relationships.  You don’t know them, and they don’t know you. 

How to get out and overcome your own toxic positivity. 

  • I.C.E. – and I’m not talking about “in case of emergency.” 

I’m talking about…

Identify the thought. 

Call it what it is – a cognitive distortion or toxic positivity. 

Explore a new thought to replace it with – it can be a neutral thought. 

  • Compassion – It sounds easier than done, and truthfully it is.  This is a defense mechanism, and like all defense mechanisms, it served a purpose at one time.  Get curious and look behind the toxic positivity and see what is there. 

Daring Greatly book by Brene' Brown Ph.D

I recommend that you check out Daring Greatly by Brene’ Brown [affiliate].  It’s an exceptionally well-written book all about perfectionism, shame, how it has shaped our lives, and ways to get your life back. 

Toxic positivity is a type of perfection.  We don’t want people to think we are less than.      

  • Challenge yourself – explore your thoughts and feelings in a journal.  And when you are ready to open up to a loved one or a therapist.  Let this be a growth experience for yourself as you learn to embrace all the different colors and flavors of emotions.      

Let me know your thoughts and what strategies have worked for you for overcoming your own toxic positivity. 

  

A More Comprehensive View Of Disqualifying The Negative

Shifting the way that you think requires the ability to recognize the power of your thoughts.  Recognize how they guide our actions and interactions with the world around us.  To better understand how thoughts may influence you, it also helps to recognize how thoughts influence emotions.  And how emotions can influence how you feel about yourself in your world. 

Below you will find common ways people will engage in the use of this cognitive distortion.  While this is not an exhaustive example of how this cognitive distortion can be seen, it can be helpful to make sense of how they think. In addition, making a mental shift offers you the opportunity to choose to do something about it.   

Toxic positivity

Is rejecting negative experiences as though they “do not count” to maintain the belief that everything is positive.  This is becoming a common cognitive distortion that is used.  Just poke around Pinterest for memes about positivity.   

Bad things don’t count because “I refuse to acknowledge it.”  And the good things that happen are “because I had a positive mindset and good vibes.”  It is the belief that success happens because they did not acknowledge any of the uncomfortable bad stuff, “if I don’t acknowledge it, then it can’t touch me.”   

In striving to have a positive outlook at all costs, you deny yourself the negative feelings necessary to acknowledge important feelings and work through them – “I’m fine.”

No matter how weak or irrational, positivity suddenly becomes the only thing that counts.  In this way, you can maintain a positive belief that is being contradicted by your everyday life experiences.    

Cognitive – the way in which you think or perceive.

Distortion – inaccurate, misleading or irrational. 

Examples of this type of a cognitive distortion may look like:

  • “Other people have it so much worse, You shouldn’t be sad, you need to just look on the bright side of things and keep being positive.”    
  • You minimize negative/uncomfortable feelings in yourself or others.        
  • You reject negative things in your life and only acknowledge the positive things or the things that are going well.       

The dangers of toxic positivity.

Do you find yourself focusing on only the things that are going good?  Do you find yourself feeling anxious, depressed, or ashamed when it’s not going good?  Toxic positivity can lead to negativity- shaming.  It puts you and others down that are not happy, bubbly, and positive at all times. 


This form of filtering is invalidating because natural emotions that “don’t fit the vibe” are being dismissed.  And because we feel our emotions – we feel we are being dismissed.    


  • You are setting yourself up for negativity-shaming, anxiety, and depression.

If you are refusing to acknowledge anything less than excessive happiness and one day you can’t.  You are going to spiral pretty darn quick.    

  • You deny the reality of your circumstances.   

You are not able to see things in a more balanced way.  You refuse to acknowledge that bad things are happening and convince yourself they are not happening at all.      

  • A vicious cycle of negativity-shaming, anxiety, depression, and invalidating your own reality.    

At its core it is self-sabotage.  It keeps you stuck and in a cycle of pretending to be happy and bubbly at all costs but for what reason? 

Steps to get you out of the cycle of toxic positivity.   

First, understanding what it is that toxic positivity is providing for you.  Does toxic positivity protect you from uncomfortable emotions?  Does toxic positivity help you pretend that things are better than they are?  Is it perhaps because you are afraid that you might not know how to get back out if you go there?  So, it’s just easier to pretend that everything is “amazing!”   

  • Emotions are powerful.  You can only bottle them up for so long before the lid is blown off.  When emotions are belittled, dismissed, or invalidated, it leads to relational isolation out of fear of being judged. 
  • Thoughts have a powerful impact on how we think about ourselves and our place in our world. So if you are struggling to maintain a fake happy, bubbly exterior, it makes sense to struggle with thoughts that you are weak or less than because you are not weathering your struggle and toxic negativity says you should.       
  • Your thoughts and feelings inform actions. So if you are engaging in toxic positivity, what actions are you likely engaging in?  Are you spending your time dismissing parts of your life because you are looking for the good?  And then shaming yourself when you can’t?    

How to overcome toxic positivity.    

It can be difficult to stop using any cognitive distortion until you understand how you engage in it.   

Learn how to identify when you are being toxic. 

To learn how you are using toxic positivity, it is helpful to check in with yourself.  If you find yourself wanting to ignore a situation, comment, thought or feeling, this is an indication that you need to check in with yourself.  If you find yourself invalidating or belittling something because it’s not positive, you need to check in with yourself.  Or, if you find yourself isolating because you can’t be bubbly and happy, you need to check in with yourself.     

Identify what emotion(s) are coming up for you. 

Are you noticing a negative or uncomfortable emotion?  Get curious about it, permit yourself to explore this emotion.  What are some benefits of negative emotions?      

Explore how you use toxic positivity. 

Do you use it with some people but not others?  Have you been doing this since you were a kiddo, or is this a more recent thing?  Do you only do this when you are in certain settings?  It may be interesting to discover if and why you are selectively using this cognitive distortion.   

What is a more accurate interpretation? 

Write your thoughts down in a journal or log.  Challenge the thought you wrote down.  Review any other thoughts you have written down and look for other instances when you have used toxic positivity.  If you were to present these thoughts to someone else, what would they say?  Would they consider them toxic or healthy?    

Or would they raise an eyebrow and give you that look of “do you seriously believe this?” 

Change the thought.  Replace it with something more realistic to the situation.  A single negative event does not mean you need to distort the situation.  

You may find it helpful, especially in the beginning, to write down your thoughts and the other interpretations that you come up with.  This can be really helpful as you learn how to challenge and change your thoughts. Then, through practice, you can begin to see your world in a healthier and more balanced way.       

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