You’re probably familiar with the concept of toxic positivity—either from clicking one of the many LinkedIn posts and articles about it in recent years or from firsthand experience with that one friend or boss who “doesn’t have time for your negativity.” But it’s worth exploring this topic a little deeper for a couple reasons:

  1. Simply banning phrases like “good vibes only” will not address the root of the problem, which is a general need for more emotion regulation skills. 
  2. When we villainize toxic positivity, we risk moving further away from the real psychological and productive benefits of positive thinking.

Toxic positivity often comes from good intentions and the desire to turn negative situations around. Or, if you’re like me, sometimes we simply don’t know what to say when someone is struggling, but our instinct is to try and make things better any way we can. These are feelings we can all relate to, along with the shame and hopelessness that can result from being on the receiving end of toxic positivity. Our well-meaning instincts keep toxic positivity lingering like an unwelcome guest—but with the right tools and skills, it doesn’t have to remain the norm.

So let’s talk about toxic positivity, what it looks like, how it differs from positivity, and the skills that can help us manage negative events and emotions with grace in the workplace.

What is toxic positivity?

Psychology Today defines toxic positivity as “the act of avoiding, suppressing, or rejecting negative emotions or experiences. This may take the form of denying your own emotions or someone else denying your emotions, insisting on positive thinking instead.” 

We can experience toxic positivity in interactions with others where we are looking for support and instead have our feelings dismissed or invalidated. We can also experience toxic positivity internally when we feel pressured to maintain a mood of happiness when in truth, we are struggling. In the long run, both of these experiences have negative effects on our mental well-being. 

Here’s how Dr. Susan David, a psychologist and emotions researcher at Harvard Medical School, described toxic positivity in a conversation with organizational psychologist Adam Grant:

I call it the tyranny of positivity. This is at its core an avoidant coping strategy. It is avoidant of the reality that is in front of you… 

This is not making us more resilient. This is not helping us to have tough conversations, to understand shared values. When we avoid difficult emotions, we stay in a world of sometimes lack of wisdom and a lack of learning because we are unable to go to the discomfort of a real challenging conversation. When we tell people just to be positive, what we are actually saying to them is my comfort is more important than your reality.

Where does toxic positivity come from?

Humans have an inherent negativity bias. No, I don’t mean we’re just pessimistic curmudgeons. We evolved the ability to notice the dangers in our environment before any positive aspects because it helped ensure our survival. Discomfort, fear, anxiety—these are all emotions that tell us when something is wrong and that we need to take action for our safety and well-being. 

Of course, the world has changed since the time when we needed to be hyper-aware of fatally poisonous plants or looming predators. Over time, humans also developed a conscious tendency toward positive thinking to counter the negative outlook that is no longer as necessary for our survival. Nowadays, positivity helps us achieve calm and greater happiness. Toxic positivity can be an overbalance of this otherwise beneficial instinct.

When positivity turns toxic

Positivity can be a powerful wellness tool. Psychology Today states that “psychological research has repeatedly shown that ‘positive reframing,’ or the ability to turn a negative into a positive, is one of the most effective ways to reduce anxiety and improve your mood.”

Positive thinking is also strongly linked to resilience and growth, which are vital to the success of any team. So when exactly is positivity helpful, and when does it become counter-productive or even harmful? Here are some situations that can take positivity from healthy to toxic:

Silver linings

Looking for positives in a tough situation can be helpful in singular cases, but consistently denying negative feelings when they come up can prevent proper processing of emotions and leave us lingering in distress. 

Research has also found that silver linings are helpful in situations that are uncertain or outside of our control but not when an outcome is certain or controllable. For example, if someone was laid off by no fault of their own, looking for opportunities or consolation may help them make the best of a bad situation. On the other hand, when a project a co-worker is responsible for is not going well, it’s not productive to say things could be worse. 

Singular focus

Positivity becomes problematic when it is seen as the only acceptable response. “It’s a problem when people are forced to seem or be positive in situations where it’s not natural or when there’s a problem that legitimately needs to be addressed that can’t be addressed if you don’t deal with the fact that there is distress or need,” psychology professor Stephanie Preston tells the Washington Post. Sadness, regret, anger, and frustration are perfectly normal emotions that can and should be felt, even if we don’t want them ultimately guiding our actions.


When one’s identity is threatened, like in cases of racial oppression or discrimination, positivity has been linked to lower well-being. Denying the reality of the challenges faced by minority and underrepresented groups compounds the harm to their mental health.

Examples of toxic positivity

Here are some phrases and behaviors to look out for that may indicate toxic positivity in your workplace:

Common toxic positivity phrases

  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “It’s all for the best.”
  • “Look on the bright side.”
  • “Happiness is a choice.”
  • “There’s so much to be grateful for.”
  • “It could be worse.”

Signs of toxic positivity in others

  • Dismissing difficult situations or feelings with platitudes or avoidance
  • Discomfort around other’s emotions
  • Not respecting other’s emotional experiences
  • Invalidating natural emotions
  • Emotional shaming

Signs of toxic positivity in yourself

  • Hiding or masking your emotions
  • Experiencing guilt over your feelings
  • Denying any negative emotions
  • Telling yourself to just “get over it”

Signs of toxic positivity in your organization

  • Bad news or failures are met with denial instead of acceptance and resolve
  • Inability to be open about struggles within the company or on individual projects 
  • Inability to ask for help
  • Discomfort around giving or receiving negative, constructive feedback

Impacts of toxic positivity

Emotions are like messengers that communicate information about our current situation, and they tend to influence our actions going forward. For example, if you come out of a critical feedback session with feelings of regret over a project that didn’t go well, these emotions can inspire you to change your behavior and aim for better outcomes in the future. But when we are denied the space to feel and understand these emotions, we may experience the following consequences:

  • Shame: You may start to internalize the idea that your feelings are unacceptable and carry ongoing feelings of shame, which has been linked to depression and anxiety disorders.
  • Isolation or decreased sense of connection: When we hide how we’re feeling or what we’re going through, it can isolate us and keep us from asking for support when we likely need it the most. It can also damage trust and relationships when others consistently deny or invalidate our emotions.
  • Increased stress: Suppressing negative emotions has been shown to increase stress levels, breed other negative emotions like guilt and anxiety, and it can even amplify the emotions you are trying to suppress.
  • Problem avoidance: Denying negative events and emotions hinders us from identifying problems and working toward solutions. When we avoid processing emotions, we ignore problems that need to be faced and instead may look for unhelpful outlets or coping mechanisms. 

Antidotes to toxic positivity

We’ve talked a lot about the problem—now here are five different things you can try to counter the negative impacts of toxic positivity:

1. Emotional agility

    Dr. Susan David writes about the concept of emotional agility, which she describes as the “capacity to hold our emotions lightly and not become locked down into right versus wrong, rigidity with our emotions, or letting our stories or our emotions own us.”

    Emotional agility provides a framework for emotion processing and regulation, a.k.a. facing your feelings instead of denying them. It involves acknowledging and accepting our emotions and approaching them with curiosity. It can be easy to get lost in feelings like despair or hurt, which makes us want to run from these negative emotions. But we can create a little distance between ourselves and negative emotions by labeling them as a feeling we’re having instead of our entire reality. Even the subtle change of thinking “I’m feeling depressed” versus “I am depressed” can give us the freedom to reframe negative emotions and choose to act from our values.

    2. Psychological safety

    Does your team feel safe to mess up? Psychological safety is when members of a team feel comfortable speaking their mind, taking risks, and admitting to mistakes without fear of negative consequences. Mishaps are a part of life and business, and they are bound to happen when you take on ambitious tasks. Rather than pretending everything is fine, psychological safety allows your team to speak up when something goes wrong so that problems can be identified and tackled together.

    Here are a few tips for fostering psychological safety on your team.

    3. Anxiety parties (tell a friend)

    Sometimes negative emotions just need to be let out—literally. When we articulate our feelings through journaling or in conversations with others, they become clearer, and we can achieve that helpful distance we discussed earlier. 

    Make it easy for your team to share by creating comfortable spaces for honest reflection like debriefs or happy hours, where team members can share their real thoughts and feelings with each other. A team at Google Ventures had a creative way of approaching this: they would throw anxiety parties where each person wrote down their current anxieties, and the team would rate them to help calibrate how severe the problems really were. Spoiler: Most times, they found there wasn’t much to worry about.

    4. Model compassionate communication

    Culture is created by your everyday actions. If you want a work environment without toxic positivity, model how you want people to respond to negative emotions. Be transparent about mistakes and tough times. Be willing to express emotions like sadness or guilt, and show that you can do so without lingering on them. Demonstrate how you can work through emotions to get to a place of problem-solving.

    Provide examples of how to support others who are experiencing negative emotions. Instead of false positivity, here are things you could say:

    • “I hear you, that sounds really stressful.”
    • “What was that like for you? I’m listening.”
    • “I’m sorry to hear you’re going through such a tough time.”
    • “How can I help? Would you like to take a walk and talk this through, or perhaps we can brainstorm solutions?”

    Interrupt toxic positivity with compassion. If someone should react to a situation with forced positivity, remind them that it’s okay not to be okay and that we’re capable of facing challenging situations.

    Building a culture of authentic positivity will take time, and because of the fine line between healthy and toxic positivity, you can expect to mess up. Be patient with yourself and others.

    5. Optimism

    Optimism is a particular form of positivity that is well-suited to adverse situations. That’s because “optimists are likely to see the causes of failure or negative experiences as temporary rather than permanent, specific rather than global, and external rather than internal. Such a perspective enables optimists to more easily see the possibility of change,” according to Psychology Today

    An optimistic perspective allows you to acknowledge the reality of a negative situation without getting caught up in the blame, shame, and hopelessness that make us want to look away from problems. With the attitude that bad situations are temporary, you can quickly move forward to your next step.

    On a personal note

    While writing and reading about this topic, I couldn’t help but wonder how I would address a tough situation—my own or someone else’s—without falling into the trap of toxic positivity. The following mantra is something I wouldn’t mind hearing:

    Facing challenging situations and emotions is an unavoidable part of growth. It’s totally normal, and even though it might suck right now, you will be stronger on the other side. So go ahead, feel what you’re feeling. It’s going to be okay.

    Mohini Kundu Mohini Kundu is a freelance writer and editor. She studied journalism at Northwestern University and started her career at The Huffington Post before moving into tech where she worked as a content marketer for 7 years. She writes about several topics including psychology, business, finance, and environmental issues.
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