What is toxic positivity?

Waffles the pug smiling and showing his teeth.
My daughter’s pug Waffles putting on a happy face. “Treats, please?”

When our daughter calls me upset, my reaction is to try and tell her that it’s not that bad. That things will improve and maybe there’s a silver lining. My desire is to make her happier, to make her pain go away.

After reading an article in the Wall Street Journal called Toxic Positivity Is Very Real, and Very Annoying by Elizabeth Bernstein, I understood why my daughter gets upset when I try to cheer her up. I never heard the term “Toxic Positivity” before, but it’s what I do. The article gives a ton of examples of well-meaning parents and friends making someone with an issue feel worse. Here are a few paragraphs from the story:

Forcing ourselves or others to always be positive can be harmful to our well-being and our relationships. There’s a better approach.

Pushing away difficult emotions, such as sadness or fear, and forcing ourselves or others to be positive can be harmful to our mental well-being and our relationships, psychologists say. This is because practicing false cheerfulness—which they call “toxic positivity”—keeps us from addressing our feelings, and the feelings of others.

Yes, cultivating a positive mindset is a powerful coping mechanism, especially in tough times. But positivity needs to be rooted in reality for it to be healthy and helpful.

“Toxic positivity is positivity given in the wrong way, in the wrong dose, at the wrong time,” says David Kessler, a grief expert and the author of six books about grief, including his latest, “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.”

It sounds like this: “Cheer up!” “Don’t worry!” “Stop focusing on the negative!” “Try to have a better attitude!”

We’re all guilty of it. Many of us were taught as children to banish so-called bad feelings—to pick ourselves up when we fall, stop complaining and count our blessings. And our fix-it-fast culture reinforces the message that to be positive is to succeed. (Just consider the phrase “winning attitude.”)

Often, we go overboard on positivity because we just don’t want to feel bad. And we don’t want the people we care about to feel bad, either.


My daughter told me that when I say “look on the bright side,” I don’t find her feelings to be valid. What she wants from me — and there are many examples of this in the article with other parents and children — is to listen to how she feels.

I’m sure my glass-half-full outlook is based on my childhood emotional issues, like my parents fighting or divorcing. In other words, I covered up my feelings and fears with a veneer of a positive attitude that was like hiding under the covers, which I did every night.

My last kernel of truth for today:

“It’s not our job to solve problems for our children, but it is our job to listen and love them.” — E.A. Wickham

Have you heard of toxic positivity? What are your thoughts about it?

Do you have someone in your life that uses it, or have you used it yourself with family members and friends?

25 thoughts on “What is toxic positivity?

  1. I am that person. I try, like you, too cheer people around me and end up offending them. I genuinely believe that things are never as bad as we think they are. And they can always be worse.

  2. I am far more pragmatic in my approach. I tell them to quit whining and go eat some chocolate cake. Does it work? Beats the shit out of me, but they do not have to call back.

  3. It is a delicate balance between toxic positivity and trying to be supportive.
    I believe that as parents, we want to make everything better for our children. So, rather than attempting to ignore their suffering, we want to make them happy. What we truly need to do is learn to hold space for them when they are venting to us. This isn’t easy.

    Learning how to hold space for others is actually something I’m talking about in next week’s podcast.

  4. Like most parents, I want to do the same thing. I wonder who picks us up when we are down, like we do for our children. When we start aging, we only have ourselves to rely on. It is hard to face, but a reality of life. We taught our kids to be self-sufficient and now we do the same for ourselves not matter how much they want to help.

  5. Yep. I hadn’t heard it called Toxic Positivity but I do know that not allowing the bad stuff in isn’t healthy. I’ve always said that things happen for a reason even though we may not know what that reason is at the time, so that is a way for me to accept the things that come my way with a little more ease. My current mantra is “You grow through what you go through” and I have a small ring I wear of a vine to help me remember it.

  6. Yes! It is just acknowledging another’s feelings and your own. Emotions are always flowing, but the not acknowledging them is what keeps the stuck. And push the bright side is not acknowledging. My brother and I call each other and will preface a call by saying, “please just listen. I don’t want advice or for you to try to fix this. Just listen.” The ground rules and safe space work wonders.

    • I like the way you and your brother introduce the call. I may suggest my daughter remind me and my husband that when she doesn’t want our advice. My son will call and say, “Mom I need your advice.” That gives me the go ahead.

      • YES!
        For a safe space, ground rules are needed. A friend and I talk every day via Marco Polo. Since it is video, we watch each other talk it out. Out responses are, what I hear is…

        Works so well and the feedback illuminations because one does not always say what she thinks she said.

  7. My natural tendency is to “make things better,” but over the years I’ve learned to bite my tongue, literally! I think when you’re a highly sensitive person you actually feel the angst and pain of others which makes it all the harder not to relieve it in some way! They say be gentle with each other because everyone is fighting a battle. I think that is true and if being gentle means letting someone share their pain I think I can be strong enough to do that. Great post! Hugs, C

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