Toxic positivity is an oxymoron that can be discreetly devastating for those who exhibit and encounter this behavior. But what is it? First of all, toxic positivity should not be confused with optimism. Optimism is a hopeful outlook on reality, whereas toxic positivity is an expectation of the fantasy that everything will be OK no matter what. Toxic positivity is detrimental because it ignores a person's natural response, instead creating a false hope that completely ignores or minimizes the gravity of the situation.
Toxic positivity is defined as dismissing or avoiding negative feelings such as sadness, anger, or fear by only acknowledging positive outcomes and emotions. By doing this, we suppress or dismiss our natural emotional response, thus dredging up feelings such as guilt and shame when we can't hide from our anger or fear any longer. Denying the reality of our situation in favor of expecting "happy endings" can drive us into isolation if those happy endings aren't fulfilled.
When an event happens that naturally inspires "negative" emotions, such as an accident, destruction of property, or the death of a loved one, we we're going to feel anger, sorrow, and grief. Even though these emotions are often thought of as "bad," the truth is that God did not make a mistake when He gave us the ability to have those emotions (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). We need to feel anger, sorrow, and grief so we can properly heal and mentally process what happened.
When positivism is used in a toxic way, all those negative feelings get dismissed. Toxic positivity only acknowledges the potential for good results. It does not acknowledge that healing takes time. It does not leave room for the grieving process after a loved one dies, or the time it takes to heal from an abusive relationship, or the lingering pain we experience from being hurt or betrayed by a friend. While only focusing on positives may seem like a good behavior, it can actually invalidate our feelings and the feelings of others.
Phrases such as, “It could have been worse” or “Think about everything you didn’t lose” or "You don't have it as bad as you think" distract from our healing process. Not only can these phrases create false or unrealistic realities and expectations of ourselves, but they can also invalidate or show a lack of support and empathy for those who are suffering.
The Bible doesn't mention toxic positivity by name, but it does provide some very good advice about how to respond in these situations. The Bible says to be kind to one another (Ephesians 4:32), to release our worries to God (Matthew 6:34), and to rejoice in our sufferings because our Father has something great planned for us (Romans 5:3-5). Toxic positivity takes these ideas and twists them into weapons. Words of toxic positivity often start as an act of love or goodwill, but these acts are merely disguised lies of the enemy that can end up hurting us or people we love.
Proverbs 14:12 tells us, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end, it leads to death.” While it may seem OK to tell someone, "God will work everything out and you'll be OK," or "Just pray and God will work it out," that isn't the full truth and is ultimately not helpful. Sometimes our own human logic and reasoning gets in the way of the truth (Jeremiah 17:9).
What do you do if you encounter toxic positivity from others or become aware that you're leaning on a fantasy of happy endings yourself? Remember, those who are guilty of toxic positivity may not be aware it’s an unhealthy behavior that’s causing others harm. They likely have the very best intentions at heart. That doesn't make it right, but it can help us understand where they're coming from.
Be kind and loving in your approach and gently inform them that they are hurting you when they dismiss your feelings and the reality of the situation. Direct them towards a healthier method of comforting you. The Bible tells us to pray for those who have hurt us and forgive them (Romans 12:17-18; Matthew 5:44). If you're the one who has habits of toxic positivity, ask the person questions like, "How can I help you practically? Is there anything you need from me? What can I pray about for you?"
Keep in mind that change does not come easily or overnight—and behavioral habits are difficult to break. Have patience if you are guiding a friend towards a godlier approach to giving comfort. Have patience for yourself as you learn new ways to help others. James 1:19-20 says we ought to be "quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
"Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer." —Romans 12:12
God never promises that our lives will be pain-free or problem-free or that everything is going to be great all the time. He says to cast our anxieties and fears onto Him so He may comfort our souls when hardships come (1 Peter 5:7; Psalm 94:19). We do this by talking to Him about what we're feeling and going through and trusting Him to comfort and protect us and provide for our needs (Proverbs 3:5). When we're so hurt we don't know what to say to God, the Holy Spirit will speak for us (Romans 8:26-27). When we don't even know what we need, God knows and listens to our cries (Psalm 34:18; Psalm 147:3). Our hope lies in our knowledge that God is present in our pain.
Grief, sadness, anger, and fear are all emotions we need for the healing process to work. We need to allow ourselves to feel those things if we're going to ever move through them. Suppressing hard feelings will only lead to future pain, shame, regret, and isolation. They are unpleasant to experience, yes, and yet they are vital for our emotional and spiritual health.
With God, we never have to be alone (Hebrews 13:5). God will heal and change us with His power—through the sorrow, the grief, the anger, and the hurt.
"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope." —Romans 15:13
Toxic positivity is defined as dismissing or avoiding negative feelings such as anger, sorrow, or grief by only acknowledging positive outcomes and emotions. This is not biblical or practical. We need to feel anger, sorrow, and grief so we can properly heal and process what happened and move through it all (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). When positivism is used in a toxic way, negative feelings get dismissed. Toxic positivity only acknowledges the potential for good results; it does not acknowledge that healing takes time. With God, we never have to be alone (Hebrews 13:5). God will heal and change us with His power—through the anger, the sorrow, the grief, and the hurt.
Hayley has loved the creative arts since she was little. Writing has been amongst her favorite things, and now she’s very excited to be presented with the opportunity to glorify God by using one of her passions. Other favorites include cooking, riding horses, and drawing.
Cat is the web producer and editor of 412teens.org. She loves audiobooks, feeding the people she cares about, and using Christmas lights to illuminate a room. When Catiana is not writing, cooking, or drawing, she enjoys spending time with her two teenage kids, five socially-awkward cats, and her amazing friend-amily.