When” good vibes” are toxic: the problem with toxic positivity

Toxic positivity is the idea that people should look positively at all life experiences, including profoundly traumatic ones. Photo by txking on Shutterstock.com

Those who are going through challenging times might hear things like “it’ll be fine,” “keep your head up” or “just smile.” Shirts, posters and keychains dangling from students’ backpacks read “good vibes only.” Amidst a sea of manufactured positivity, it’s easy for one to wonder where sadness, anger and frustration fit in. 

While people who tell others to “look on the bright side” may have good intentions, they engage in toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is the idea that people should look at every life experience, including highly traumatic events, positively. Though this idea may sound nice, it can be incredibly damaging. 

Toxic positivity poses a problem because it leads to emotional invalidation rather than encouraging optimism. This emotional invalidation silences and rejects negative emotions, which has adverse psychological and physiological effects on the person expressing them. 

Various studies show that levels of emotional invalidation in childhood or adulthood increase aggression and lower one’s emotional reactivity. When well-meaning friends meet a cry of “I’m struggling” with a “keep your head up,” or “hey, good vibes only,” they unknowingly engage in emotional invalidation. By welcoming the “good vibes” only, people create a space where genuine negative emotions are unwelcome – even though they don’t cease to exist.

“Emotional invalidation is [often] done accidentally by [a] well-meaning [person who] isn’t paying attention to your feelings,” said Sharon Martin, a psychotherapist and media contributor on her blog. “This can be invalidating because your feelings are being dismissed when someone wants to change your feelings rather than accept them or understand them.” 

While toxic positivity can lead to some people feeling uncomfortable expressing their feelings, others find comfort in an alternative movement known as “tragic optimism,” coined by Viktor Franklin 1949. Tragic optimists seek to find meaning in pain and tragedy rather than ignoring or denying it. 

“[Tragic optimism] means that one is, and remains, optimistic despite the ‘tragic triad,’ which consists of […] pain, guilt, and death,” Viktor Frankl’s “The Case for a Tragic Optimism” states. “How is it possible to say yes to life in spite of all that?”

With millions of people worldwide finding it hard to “just smile” during a  pandemic that uprooted their lives, COVID-19 inspired a new wave of tragic optimists. Tragic optimism poses opportunities for those feeling confused or lost during an inevitably life-changing event to find acceptance and growth. By tackling tragedies as they are rather than trying to change them, Frankl asserted, people can learn from them. Forcing a smile through the pain does not address the problem; it denies it. 

“Toxic positivity is toxic!” said Beatty Cohan, a therapist from New York City, in an interview on MyWellbeing. “To deny and avoid acknowledging and expressing our authentic negative emotions [such as] fear, disappointment, anger [and] betrayal keeps us in a world of illusion and fantasy and inevitably harms our physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing.”