Toxic Positivity: Why Being Positive Could Be Bad Sometimes

Think back to a time when you experienced emotional disappointment or shock – perhaps a loss of a job, an illness or diagnosis for yourself or a family member, an accident, breakup, or life-changing bad news.

Remember the frustration, hurt, sadness, anxiety, fear, or worry you felt.

As you reflect, do you remember a well-meaning friend or family member trying to pep you up with positivity and hope?

Perhaps you were met with, “Everything happens for a reason”, “This too shall pass” or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Maybe they said, “It’s going to be okay”, “You’ll get through this” or “Don’t worry, you’ll find someone else”. Or, maybe they tried to make you feel better by sharing, “I know someone who had that same type of [insert diagnosis] and they’re doing great now”, “Never Give up” or my favorite, “It could be worse”.

How did you feel? What was your reaction? Did their positivity and optimism make you feel better? Did it make you feel loved and understood? Or did you feel upset, invalidated, unheard?

That is toxic positivity.

What Is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic Positivity can be defined as:

Here are some examples of toxic positivity:

  • Ignoring, hiding, downplaying, or dismissing your emotions or real feelings.
  • Feeling bad, guilty, or shameful for how you feel.
  • Putting on a “game face” to the world when you feel differently inside.
  • Pretending everything is okay when it’s not.
  • Minimizing others’ emotions.
  • Shaming people for having negative emotions.
  • Invalidating someone’s experience by not acknowledging the real issue/pain/frustration.
  • Minimizing someone’s pain with quotes and perspective.

While I’m a big supporter of positive psychology – and we all know the many benefits of positivity and optimism – there are times when these traits are not only unhelpful but can be destructive and harmful.

Positivity is not positive when it denies, invalidates, or minimizes authentic human emotions.

Optimism is not helpful when it makes people feel shame, guilt, or invalidated for feeling a certain way.

Hope is not useful when it does not allow for the natural rise and fall of emotions or when it ignores the gravity of a situation.

Stoicism is not brave or courageous when it forces you to stuff down your real, true emotions and be inauthentic and incongruent with what you really feel.

Perspective is not supportive when it marginalizes your experience.

During this crazy pandemic, people are feeling scared, confused, fearful, overwhelmed, sad, and angry. As a result, many try to put things into perspective by saying, “At least you have a roof over your head, food to eat, loved ones,” or, my favorite, “It could be worse”.

Yes, it could be worse and it still feels really bad to those in the middle of it. People try to bring hope to the situation by reminding us that Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Sir Isaac Newton developed his theory of gravity in quarantine.

Good for them. But did they—like many friends I have talked with—have kids they were trying to homeschool while working full time and a husband who lost his income? I thinketh not.

We often brush people’s problems off by saying, “Yeah, sounds rough. First World Problems!” But those problems, while first-world (and I’m not denying or minimizing there are much worse situations) are still REAL to whoever is experiencing them. Deeming them “First World Problems” only makes people feel worse, guilty, and shameful.

In the book, There’s No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love, they share research that states,

“Unbridled positivity in an experience of failure or distress makes people feel worse, not better.”

I’m Guilty

I’ll admit it. I grew up in a positive, supportive, encouraging family. My parents were always imparting words of wisdom and perspective in every situation. They are positive, upbeat, entrepreneurs who move forward quickly when things get them down.

Whether by nature or nurture, or both, I grew up to be a positive and optimistic person myself. I see the bright side of everything.

Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you I have a wealth of stories, metaphors, and yes, quotes in my back pocket for any situation that may have you down. That is not to say I haven’t had my fair share of hardships, grief, and loss. I have. But I always try to see the upside.

I’ve learned over the course of my life and career that while some people love the hope and optimism I bring to most situations, there is a time and place for positivity and more importantly, a time and place for compassion, acknowledgment, and validation.

Alternatives to Toxic Positivity

Acknowledging and Validating Other’s Feelings and Emotions Goes a Long Way

Often, all someone wants and needs is the acknowledgment and validation of their feelings. We all want to feel heard and seen. We don’t want someone to tell us how to feel or not feel or how it “isn’t that bad.”

But First, You Must Acknowledge Your Own

When you don’t face your own emotions, they will always rise back up.

What the mind conceals the body reveals.

When you try to hide, push down, or ignore your emotions and feelings, they don’t just go away. They go deep within you. They eat at you. They cause ulcers, back pain, sickness. That “sudden” heart attack, “unexplained” high blood pressure, or “confounding” anxiety may not be so inexplicable after all.

Believe me; I learned this the hard way.

You need to acknowledge and feel your emotions. It’s okay to not be okay—to be angry, tired, scared, or frustrated. When you feel your emotions, it provides release and prevents those feelings from eating away underneath the surface. In fact, there are many benefits to experiencing negative emotions.

In a study on emotional acceptance, Iris Mauss, associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, found that “people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health.”

That doesn’t mean you need to wallow in your negative emotions. Once you acknowledge and accept, they can surface and pass.

Body Worker Dr. Ruth Ziemba once told me, “Feel your feelings but don’t let them become you.” This has stuck with me for years. Instead of “I am sad,” I can acknowledge “I am feeling sad.” I don’t have to get stuck in that state.

Empathy and Compassion Are Almost Always the Right Response

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, or the ability to put yourself in their shoes. A simple, “That sounds really hard,” or “I’m sorry you’re going through that” goes a lot further than unchecked optimism.

The same goes for compassion. Compassion—from the roots passion (suffering) and com (with)—means to suffer with another. Compassion is an innate part of human response to suffering, which is comprised of a three-part experience of noticing another’s pain, feeling with another, and responding in some way.

The key here is to notice their pain, feel with them, and respond in a way that works for their needs and situation.

Vulnerability Builds Rapport

I remember doing a leadership workshop early in my career. We came to a session where the participants were providing feedback to each other about their leadership style. It was my turn to receive feedback, and I’ll never forget what happened. I remember every detail like it was yesterday.

Lauren, a thoughtful, confident, blonde, pretty, and likable leadership coach faced me and said, “I feel like I can’t connect with you as everything is always so positive.”

I looked around as the rest of the room nodded and voiced their agreement. I was shocked. And then I was angry. Instead of taking it in, I went on the defensive. Turns out I had missed her point completely.

It wasn’t that I had to bare my soul or walk around sad, frustrated, or angry all the time; they just wanted to see all of me, and they felt they hadn’t. That made me less relatable and connected. I brushed this off and moved on. That must be their issue. But it wasn’t.

I received this feedback many times over the course of my career. My positivity and optimism (while real and genuine and mostly helpful) made me unrelatable at times. People liked being around me because of these traits, but it could leave them feeling like they were never fully connected.

Later in my career, a mentor of mine shared that “vulnerability builds rapport.” It’s true. It does.

When people see all of you, they get to know you. They feel closer, more connected, and accepted. I learned that I needed to be more open with my struggles and challenges.

In addition, when others face things that were stressful, upsetting, or downright painful, I needed to be more sensitive, thoughtful, and not hand out my suggestions for how to fix it, words of wisdom, or positive quotes, at least not right away.

Timing Is Everything

I want to be clear. This is not to say you can’t be positive, share your experiences, hope, and optimism with others. That optimism and hope might be just what someone needs. Just remember, there is a time and place for everything.

When your best friend just told you that her boyfriend left her unexpectedly, telling her, “You’ll find someone better” or “I never liked him anyway” is not going to be helpful. Instead, ask her how she is, sit and talk with her, bring her some ice cream.

Allow her to feel her emotions. Then, as the wounds start to heal, let her know how great she is, that you know she will find someone, and then offer inspiration, optimism, and positivity.

People will often look back at a situation and be able to see the upsides, learn the lesson, and realize everything did happen for a reason but . . .

It’s difficult to see the rainbow when you’re in the middle of a storm.

Reach for the Next Best Emotion

In many spiritual fields, people refer to an emotional frequency scale, ranging from shame at the bottom to enlightenment at the top. Many spiritual teachers speak about reaching for the “next best emotion.”

If you are feeling fear, it’s very difficult to leap from that frequency all the way to joy because someone provides perspective or positivity. Instead, you can work your way up the ladder. If you can move from fear to courage, you can move to acceptance and ultimately to love, joy, and peace.

So, when you’re supporting someone (or yourself), don’t expect to go from depressed to happy in one fell swoop. It’s helpful to take baby steps up the emotional ladder, and as long as you are making progress, you’re on the right track.

Just Listen

Often, we force optimism because we don’t know what to say to a given situation. Someone we love is hurting, and we want them to feel better.

Often, we are uncomfortable in the negative emotions (yep, that’s me) so you want to fix it. You want to do something—anything to make them feel better. Remember, that listening IS something. Listen to understand what’s going on. Hold space for them to openly share without the fear of judgment, criticism, or shame.

When you take the time to listen, you can truly understand how someone feels about a situation. And when you truly understand how they feel, you will be better prepared to respond when the time and place are right.

Follow Their Lead

When someone shares something that is going on for them, follow their lead. If they lead with their frustration and disappointment, allow them to go down that path. If they start down the path of optimism and hope, jump on that train with them.

A few years ago, I was at a party when a friend who I hadn’t seen in a while told me she was getting divorced. My response of, “I’m so sorry” was met with, “No, it’s the best thing that’s happened to me! I’m so relieved and so happy to be moving forward with my life. We’re both in a really good place.”

Find out where they are and ride their wavelength, not your own.

Just Be There

Often, we respond with unhelpful positivity or optimism because we don’t know what else TO DO.

Hope is real, and so is pain. When someone is hurting, they often don’t need or want anything from you. They just want to know you’re there for themwhen they’re happy or when they’re not, in the good and the bad.

Be kind. Be compassionate. Validate their feelings. Let them know you’re there for them.

Real Vibes Only

It’s time to replace your “Positive Vibes Only” or “Good Vibes Only” sign with “Real Vibes Only”.

In the end, it’s not about being positive or negative, optimistic, pessimistic, or anything in between. It’s about being real and authentic.

I will always be a silver lining, see the good in everything type of person. That’s just who I am. I am proud of being optimistic and positive. I do believe everything happens for a reason and that it will all be good in the end. If it’s not good, it’s not the end.

However, I have learned that there is a time and place for everything. Including acknowledgment, validation, and compassion so we can all heal and move forward. Because toxic positivity is not really all that positive after all.

Tips on Avoiding Toxicity

Motivation is one of the main reasons we do things — take an action, go to work (and sometimes overwork ourselves), create goals, exercise our willpower. There are two main, universally agreed upon types of motivation — intrinsic motivation (also known as internal motivation) and extrinsic motivation (external motivation).

The intrinsic kind is, by inference, when you do something because it’s internally fulfilling, interesting or enjoyable — without an expectation of a reward or recognition from others. Extrinsic motivation is driven by exactly the opposite — externalities, such as the promise of more money, a good grade, positive feedback, or a promotion.

And of course, we all know about the big debate about money. It’s surely an external driver, but is it possible that it can sometimes make us enjoy what we do more? A meta-analysis that reviewed 120 years of research found a weak link between job satisfaction and money.

And what’s more — there is some evidence to suggest that more money can actually have an adverse effect on your intrinsic motivation.

Regardless of its type, motivation is still important to get you moving, to improve, excel, and put that extra effort when you feel like you don’t have a single drop of energy left to keep going.

So, let’s see some of the best things you can do to keep the fire going, even when you’d rather just indulge in pleasant idleness.

Why Intrinsic Motivation Tops Extrinsic Motivation

“To be motivated means to be moved to do something.”

Generally speaking, we all need motivation.

An avalanche of research, though, shows that when it comes to finding the lasting drive to “do something,” internal incentives are much more powerful than extrinsic rewards.

Why? It’s simple.

There is a great difference when you engage in something because “I want to,” as opposed to “I must.” Just think about the most obvious example there is: work.

If you go to work every day, dragging your feet and dreading the day ahead of you, how much enjoyment will you get from your job? What about productivity and results? Quality of work?

Yep, that’s right, you definitely won’t be topping the Employee of the Month list anytime soon.

The thing with external motivation is that it doesn’t last. It’s susceptible to something psychologists call Hedonic Adaptation. It’s a fancy way of saying that external rewards are not a sustainable source of happiness and satisfaction.

When you put in 100-hour weeks in order to get promoted, and you finally are, how long does your “high” last? The walking-on-a-cloud feelings wear off quickly, research tells us, making you want more. Therefore, you are stuck on a never-ending “hedonic treadmill,” i.e. you can progressively only become motivated by bigger and shinier things, just to find out that they don’t bring you the satisfaction you hoped for, when you finally get them.

Or, as the journalist and author Oliver Burkeman wonderfully puts it:

“Write every day” won’t work unless you want to write. And no exercise regime will last long if you don’t at least slightly enjoy what you’re doing.

If you want to find out more about the different types of motivation, take a look at this article: 9 Types of Motivation That Make It Possible to Reach Your Dreams

Benefits of Intrinsic Motivation

If you are still unconvinced that doing things solely for kudos and brownie points is not going to keep you going forever, nor make you like what you do, here is some additional proof:

Studies tell us that intrinsic motivation is a generally stronger predictor of job performance over the long run than extrinsic motivation.

One reason is that when we are internally driven to do something, we do it simply for the enjoyment of the activity. So, we keep going, day in and out, because we feel inspired, driven, happy, and satisfied with ourselves.

Another reason has to do with the fact that increasing intrinsic motivation is intertwined with things such as higher purpose, contributing to a cause, or doing things for the sake of something bigger than ourselves or our own benefit. A famous study done by the organizational psychologist Adam Grant is case in point.

By showing university fundraisers how the money donated by alumni can help financially struggling students to graduate from college, their productivity increased by 400% a week! The callers also showed an average increase of 142% in time spent on the phone and 171% increase in money raised.

Internal motivation has been found to be very helpful when it comes to academia, too. Research confirms that the use of external motivators, such as praise, undermine students’ internal motivation, and, in the long-run, it results in “slower acquisition of skills and more errors in the learning process.”

In contrast, when children are internally driven, they are more involved in the task at hand, enjoy it more, and intentionally seek out challenges.

Therefore, all the research seems to allude to one major revelation: intrinsic motivation is a must-have if you want to save yourself the drudgery we all sometimes feel when contemplating the things we should do or must do.

6 Ways to Enhance Your Intrinsic Motivation

So, how does one get more of the good stuff — that is, how do you become internally motivated?

There are many things you can do to become more driven. Here are the ones that top the list.

1. Self-Efficacy

The theory of self-efficacy was developed by the American-Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura in 1982. Efficacy is our own belief in whether we can achieve the goals we set for ourselves. In other words, it’s whether we think we “got what it takes” to be successful at what we do.

Find intrinsic motivation with self-efficacy.

It’s not hard to see the link of self-efficacy to higher self-esteem, better performance, and, of course, enhanced motivation. People with high self-efficacy are more likely to put extra effort in what they do, to self-set more challenging goals, and be more driven to improve their skills.

Therefore, the belief that we can accomplish something serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy — it motivates us to try harder to prove to ourselves that we can do it.

You can learn more about self-efficacy in this article: What Is Self Efficacy and How to Improve Yours

2. Link Your Actions to a Greater Purpose

Finding your “why” in life is incredibly important. This means that you need to be clear with yourself on why you do what you do and what drives you. What is intrinsically rewarding for you? 

And no matter how mundane a task may be, it can always be linked to something bigger and better. Psychologists call this “reframing your narrative.”

Remember the famous story of John F. Kennedy visiting NASA in 1961? As it goes, he met a janitor there and asked him what he did at NASA. The answer was:

“I’m helping to put a man on the Moon.”

Inspirational, isn’t it?

Re-phrasing how your actions can help others and leave a mark in the universe can be a powerful driver and a meaning-creator.

3. Volunteer

Volunteering is a great way to give back to the world. It can also help boost your internal motivation by making you feel important in supporting the less fortunate, learning new skills, feeling good about yourself, or linking to some of your inner values, such as kindness and humanitarianism.

When you remove any external reward expectations and do something for the pure joy and fulfilment of improving others’ lives, then you are truly intrinsically motivated.

4. Don’t Wait Until You “Feel Like It” to Do Something

A great piece in the Harvard Business Review points out that when we say things as “I can’t make myself go to the gym” or “I can’t get up early,” what we actually mean is that we don’t feel like it. There is nothing that psychically prevents us from doing those things, apart from our laziness.

But here’s the thing: You don’t have to “feel like it” in order to take action.

Sometimes, it so happens that you may not want to do something in the beginning, but once you start, you get into the flow and find your intrinsic motivation.

For instance, you don’t feel like going to the gym after a long day at work. Rather than debating in your head for hours “for and against” it, just go. Tell yourself that you will think about it later. Once in the gym, surrounded by similar souls, you suddenly won’t fee that tired or uninspired.

Another way to overcome procrastination is to create routines and follow them. Once the habit sets in, suddenly getting up at 6 am for work or writing for an hour every day won’t be so dreadful.

5. Self-Determination, or the CAR Model (As I Call It)

The Self-Determination theory was created by two professors of psychology from the University of Rochester in the mid-80s—Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. The theory is one of the most popular ones in the field of motivation. It focuses on the different drivers behind our behavior—i.e. the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.

There are three main needs, the theory further states, that can help us meet our need for growth. These are also the things which Profs. Deci and Ryan believed to be the main ways to enhance our intrinsic motivation—Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness (CAR).

If our jobs allow us to learn and grow, and if we have enough autonomy to do things our way and be creative, then we will be more driven to give our best, and our performance will soar. In addition, as humans are social beings, we also need to feel connected to others and respected.

All of these sources of intrinsic motivation, separately and in combination, can become powerful instigators to keep us thriving, even when we feel uninspired and unmotivated .

6. Tap Into a Deeper Reason

Some interesting research done in 2016 sought answers to how high-performing employees remain driven when their company can’t or won’t engage in ways to motivate them—intrinsically or extrinsically.

The study tracked workers in a Mexican factory, where they did exactly the same tasks every day, with virtually zero chances for learning new skills, developing professionally, or being promoted. Everyone was paid the same, regardless of performance. So there was no extrinsic motivation at all, other than keeping one’s job.

A third kind of motivation was then discovered, which scientists called “family motivation.” Workers who agreed more with statements such as “I care about supporting my family” or “It is important for me to do good for my family” were more energized and performed better, although they didn’t have any additional external or internal incentive to do so.

The great thing about this kind of driver is that it’s independent of the company one works for or the situation. It taps into something even deeper—if you don’t want to do something for your own sake, then do it for the people you care for.

And this is a powerful motive, as many can probably attest to this.

Final Thoughts

Frederick Herzberg, the American psychologist who developed what’s perhaps still today the most famous theory of motivation, in his renowned article from 1968 (which sold a modest 1.2 million reprints and it the most requested article from Harvard Business Review One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees? wrote:

“If I kick my dog, he will move. And when I want him to move again, what must I do? I must kick him again. Similarly, I can charge a person’s battery, and then recharge it, and recharge it again. But it is only when one has a generator of one’s own that we can talk about motivation. One then needs no outside stimulation. One wants to do it.”

Herzberg further explains that the so-called “hygiene factors” (salary, job security, benefits, vacation time, work conditions) don’t lead to fulfillment, nor motivation. What does, though, are the “motivators”—challenging work, opportunities for growth, achievement, greater responsibility, recognition, the work itself.

Herzberg realized it long ago…intrinsic motivation tips the scales when it comes to finding long-term happiness and satisfaction in everything we do, and to improving our overall well-being.

In the end, the next time when you need to give yourself a bit of a kick to get something done, remember to link it to a goal bigger than yourself, and preferably one that has non-material benefit.

And no, don’t say that you tried but it’s just impossible to find internal motivation. Remember the janitor at NASA?

Because once you find your internal generator, you will be truly unstoppable.

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