There is a wide array of human emotions and experiences. Each of us inevitably feels a mixture of pleasant, challenging, positive, and difficult emotions, and feeling the range of reactions is natural and healthy.
When life gets challenging of course we want to respond with resilience and optimism, but sometimes we’re overwhelmed, sad, or suffering. What happens when the going gets tough, we struggle to get going, and we tell ourselves we should be able to “glow up”? Is there any harm in the friend that says, “look on the bright side” or the wellness practitioner that pushes clients to have an “abundance mindset”?
What is Toxic Positivity?
Toxic positivity is using the tools, tactics, and techniques of positivity to deny, reject, or mask the challenging parts of the human experience. This can be done to yourself, like through positive affirmations that feel ingenuine, or between people, like struggling with mental health and your friends telling you to “just be positive”.
Having a positive outlook for yourself and others is well-intentioned. We all want to be happy and for those, we love to do well. However, when someone is struggling with difficult emotions being overly positive can feel dismissive, shallow, and like a form of rejection. It denies the full spectrum of our human experience and replaces it with a false veneer of positivity.
Toxic Positivity Examples
It’s not uncommon for those working in the fitness, wellness , or mental health spaces to encounter or unintentionally create toxic positivity. When we do it creates a few significant problems for ourselves and others:
• Invalidates the experiences, interpretation, or emotional reaction of the person struggling.
• Undermines autonomy, making that person feel less in control of themselves.
• Creates doubt in that person’s intuition and emotional interpretation.
• Teaches that person to suppress their emotional reactions, therefore, minimizing processing, learning, and healthy coping strategies.
• Ignores real problems, sometimes worsening them.
• This can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and emotional manipulation.
You may already be thinking of examples in your own life. It’s the self-help celebrity who encourages you to meet your challenging emotions by repeating affirmations like “everything happens for a reason” or “I am my best self” even when they feel hollow or untrue.
Often these types of exercises are presented as if repeating them eventually makes them true, minimizing the real work of self-knowledge and growth. Perhaps you’ve had a parent, elder, or mentor who you’ve gone to with a problem, and they’ve responded that “it’s not so bad”, “you should be grateful for all you have”, or “suck it up and you’ll be fine”. If you’ve felt minimized or not validated, that’s one of the hallmarks of toxic positivity.
Toxic Positivity also shows up in fitness and wellness. Prevalent examples that have become self-help clichés are sentiments like “if I can do it, so can you”, “think positive”, “no bad days”, and “failure is not an option.” Each of these subtly diminishes an individual’s process of struggling, learning, and growing.
They undermine exploring the nuances of our emotional experiences and the information we learn from our feelings as well as the unique needs of different people on their wellness journey.
On the business side of fitness and wellness, we may encounter toxic positivity through the “rise and grind” entrepreneurial mindset. Messaging that says you can retire early if you just put out the right kind of motivating content or create the perfect passive-income programming. This culture ignores the diverse needs and circumstances within the industry and the real challenges that come with being a solopreneur.
They’re replaced with the myth that with the right productivity hacks and supplements we can be “successful.”
Ways to Avoid Falling into a Toxic Positivity Trap
Avoiding toxic positivity starts with accepting that human beings sometimes suffer and struggle. We all experience loss, rejection, fear, and uncertainty. Sometimes life events will cause overwhelm, sadness, grief, and the full spectrum of human emotions. Instead of pushing away challenging emotions accept them, and allow yourself to feel, process, and integrate them. If someone is struggling to do so they can seek professional guidance and support, instead of rejecting these emotions or suppressing them with overly positive thinking.
Tools such as focusing on strengths, gratitude practices, meditation, mindfulness, or even physical exercise are not meant to push away life’s experiences. Instead, the tools of wellness and fitness can be embraced as part of the process of life and living.
How to Approach Toxic Positivity as a Wellness Coach
To avoid toxic positivity as a wellness coach, start by validating your client’s struggles and challenges. When they share that something is difficult or overwhelming reflect on their experience in a way that helps them explore their emotions, examine any associated beliefs, and guide them to recognize the reality of the circumstances, beliefs, or limitations they may be experiencing.
When feelings of shame or guilt come up remind your clients that you are not judging them and are there to support them in exploring their wellness journey. Should you see your clients engaging in their forms of toxic positivity you can ask for permission to challenge them if they’re denying their own difficult emotions.
Positive thinking can be a powerful tool to motivate, manifest, and explore possibilities. However, when it’s used to deny, distance, or dissociate from life’s challenges it is positively toxic.
Alarcon, G. M., Bowling, N. A., & Khazon, S. (2013). Great expectations: A meta-analytic examination of optimism and hope. Personality and individual differences, 54(7), 821-827.
Ehrenreich, B. (2009). Bright-sided: How positive thinking is undermined America. Metropolitan Books.
Sharot, T. (2011). The optimism bias. Current biology, 21(23), R941-R945.
Sokal, L., Eblie Trudel, L., & Babb, J. (2020). It’s okay to be okay too. Why calling out teachers’“toxic positivity” may backfire.