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What is toxic positivity – and how can we avoid it?

Updated: Jun 23, 2021

If you struggle with chronic illness, you have probably come across a fair share of toxic positivity in your life. But what is so bad about it – and what can we do instead?

We all know sentences like these: “It’s not that bad, just think positive!”, “others have it much worse, so be thankful”, or “don’t make a big deal out of this!”.

Most times these sentences are meant well, but often we’re left feeling even worse than before. But why is that?

You may think that there is no such thing as “too much positivity” – but there is.

As with many things in life, if you go too far with something, things get out of balance and lose their authenticity. If people go too far with positivity, it can seem forced and inauthentic, and this can become really damaging. But what is the bad thing about forced positivity and why shouldn’t we just “fake it till we make it?”

Nobody can or should only be happy and positive the entire time of their lives. There will always be phases in life, that aren’t going so well – and that is completely ok!

But if we expect from others or even from ourselves only to be happy all the time because all other feelings are not “welcome”, we end up suppressing our true feelings and stop talking about them. We don’t want to be the party poopers, right?

But the problem about suppressed emotions is, that they always find their way out. And often times they come out in situations where we can least use them!

Suppressed emotions can create some serious damage over the time, so ignoring them is definitely not something we should do.

If we already feel bad about something, and then there’s the additional shame and guilt because we think that we are not allowed to feel this way, can make any situation so much worse. I have learned in the last years, that if I just let my feelings be as they are, pause a moment to listen and take my own feelings seriously, helps me to let them go much easier and much faster. After all, feelings are just feelings and thoughts are just thoughts. If we learn to let them be, to accept them, we learn that negative feelings pass. We learn, that we do not have to hold on to them or push them down.

Another downside of toxic positivity is that we have the impression that our feelings aren’t valid, or that we do not have a right to “complain” – even though it can be really helpful to express our emotions! Often times we feel immediately better after speaking out our true feelings, instead of eating them up.

Unfortunately, our society still sees it as “negative”, when you speak openly about your true emotions, especially if they are feelings like sadness, anger or frustration. We are often made to feel as if we are whiny, but stating truthfully that you are not feeling ok with something doesn’t immediately make you a crank!

And we cannot forget that all of our feelings are important and often tell us something: anger for example can help us set our boundaries and stand up for ourselves. Especially as women we are often taught, that we should never behave in a rude way and that we always have to be polite. Anger is often seen as unwanted, but if we express it in a healthy way, it helps us to stand up for ourselves, instead of keeping our thoughts to ourselves and ending up in a situation we are not comfortable with. Painting someone as being “cranky” or “hysterical” when they speak up about something, is often a way of discrediting someone, when their opinions are unwanted. “Oh, don’t listen to her, she’s just acting up!”

It took me years (and honestly I am still struggling with this sometimes) to open my mouth and say something if I am not ok with what is happening. If you are raised to be “good” and “well behaved”, it can make you into a real people pleaser and people will end up overstepping your boundaries constantly. In order to keep the peace, we often tend to shut our mouths instead and keep our concerns to ourselves. And that is definitely not healthy!

You are not a crybaby!

Especially people with physical or mental illnesses experience very often, that their pain or discomfort is being discredited as “whining”, or told that they are exaggerating. This can lead to patients not getting the help that they need for years, because they think their pain is not valid. People end up not getting the medical support or treatments that would have been much more effective, if they would have started earlier on.

So, if someone paints you as the “crybaby” for voicing your true feelings: know that you are not! Your feelings are valid, and nobody has the right to discredit that.

Things like this are especially unsettling if they happen in a medical setting, when doctors or medical staff downplay someone’s pain and paint them as “attention seekers”. When this happens, we call it medical gaslighting. I have written an article about this previously, you can read it here: What is medical gaslighting - and what can we do if it happens to us?

What can we do instead?

We should stop downplaying other people’s pain or worries. Even if we think, that it might help, it can feel horrible for the person on the receiving end.

Instead of saying “Oh, it’s not that bad”, we can say:

“I understand what you mean. This must be very difficult!”

“I am here for you and I will support you if you need me”

“What can I do to make you feel better?"

“I am here to listen”

Sometimes, all we need is someone who listens to us, without judgement or even advice. In some cases, an open ear is the most important thing someone can give! The feeling of having someone who listens, and who cares, can be incredibly relieving already.

We should all work on normalizing feelings that are usually seen as negative, because they are a part of life. We need to learn, that expressions of emotions, crying or venting out our frustrations are not inherently negative. Doing these things can help us let go of our negative feelings much more than pushing them down.

“But what if these thoughts and feelings keep coming back?”

We all have had some situations in life that created unresolved issues, that lead to tension, insecurity or even mood swings or depression. If you feel like you keep ruminating about something, that there are some feelings you feel overwhelmed with and you can’t seem to find a solution, then that could be a sign that you may need some help.

Therapy has helped me immensely in unraveling some of these unresolved issues and getting clarity where I couldn’t find it on my own. Unfortunately, our society still sees it as something negative if a person gets help (all thanks to toxic positivity again!) and we have the feeling that we need to do everything on our own, or otherwise we are weak. But that is not true! Seeking out help in the moments you feel like you need it is a way of standing up for yourself, it’s a form of self- care, and that is a very strong thing to do in my opinion!

Let’s cancel toxic positivity!

Toxic positivity serves nobody in the long run. We should try to create a surrounding, where people feel taken seriously, and where they feel like they can express their emotions honestly, without being judged or discredited. No more looking away, but embracing all our emotions; the good, the bad and the ugly. This would allow us all to live an authentic life, without any suppressed feelings.

Have you experienced situations with toxic positivity before? How did it make you feel?

Please feel free to let me know your thoughts and share this article if you found it helpful. Find me on social media @rea.strawhill

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With love,


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