Your Student Life: Toxic Positivity - The Darker Side of the Rainbow

April 12, 2021

Have you ever heard or used these catchy one-liners to cheer people up? 

“Everything will be ok.”                                                              “Don’t worry, be happy!” 

“Everything will work itself out.”                                                “Stay positive.” 

“Everything happens for a reason.”                                           “It could be worse.”

In the movie Inside Out, a kid named Riley is uprooted from her Midwest life and moved to San Francisco. As a result of these life changes, Riley’s emotions – characterized as Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness – conflict on how best to help her navigate a new city, house, and school.  

One of the scenes entails Joy attempting to cheer up another character named Bing Bong who lost his rocket used for adventures with Riley. Joy attempts to cheer up Bing Bong and distract him with other opportunities, whereas Sadness sits with Bing Bong, empathizes with him, and lets him cry. Can you guess which method worked? 

Inside Out: Sadness Comforts Bing Bong:   
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QT6FdhKriB8

Joy, like many well-intended people, is doing her best to cheer someone up. While there’s value in practicing positivity and gratitude, “toxic positivity” minimizes or ignores painful feelings, which can invalidate people’s experiences and deny basic human emotions. Consider the following ways toxic positivity may show up: 

·       Hiding or masking your true feelings. 

·       Ignoring your emotions by trying to “get on with it.” 

·       Minimizing the experience with feel good quotes like “Everything will be ok.” 

·       Invalidating the experience with statements like “It could be worse.” 

·       Brushing off the experience with statements like “It is what it is.” 

·       Feeling shame, blame, guilt or anxiety for what you feel. 

·       Shaming or chastising others for expressing emotions that aren’t positive. 

Toxic positivity can send a subtle yet stifling message that there’s no space for pain, and it can affect people’s health in the following ways: 

1.    Suppressed emotions. Hiding, denying or avoiding feelings can lead to physical and psychological distress whereas expressing how you feel helps to regulate your body’s stress response. 

2.    Shame. Keeping silent about your feelings may be used to avoid shame but doesn’t resolve the issue and may make things worse. To check if shame is being hidden or avoided, ask yourself the following: “If someone knew ____ about me, how would I feel?" or “Something I wouldn’t want others to know about me is ____.” If you can fill in the blanks with anything (e.g. situation, feeling, experience), shame likely exists.  

3.    Superficial relationships. Denying your truth leads to feeling more disconnected from yourself and others which leads to inauthentic relationships. 

One of the antidotes to shame and toxic positivity is empathy which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Check out these other examples of non-toxic acceptance and validation statements that may better support you and your loved ones.

Janele Bayless

Wellness Coordinator | Nutrition Education
Student Wellness Center
Office of Student Life