The danger of toxic positivity in 2020

I think we can agree that 2020 has been one hell of a decade. It’s been jam packed with what feels like years of uncertainty and distress. I’ve asked myself countless times if it could get any worse. It always delivers. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. And since I’m a realist, I never hesitate to tell it like it is: life in 2020 SUCKS.

There have been many people who have dismissed my comment about life sucking in 2020 with a quick “it could be worse”, “at least we were able to stay home,” or “we should just move forward” response. Who the heck wants to hear that? Not me. And because you clicked on this post, probably not you either.

That is what we call “toxic positivity.” It has run rampant this year especially. And it’s dangerous and pretty inconsiderate.

What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity can be defined as the overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state that results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience. It’s basically emotional gaslighting. It is needed when positivity is to be maintained at all costs. Toxic positivity leads to the avoidance of negative emotions, which is part of what makes it dangerous. Because you can run but you can’t hide (forever).

What does toxic positivity look like?

It can be hard to spot in the midst of optimism, which is having hope about the outcome or future of something. There is a distinction, though. Unlike optimism, toxic positivity lacks acknowledgment of negative events and feelings. Toxic positivity looks like this:

  • Hiding or masking true feelings
  • Trying to “get over it” or telling others to do so
  • Feeling guilty about how you feel
  • Minimizing other people’s experiences with “feel good” quotes or statements
  • Trying to give someone perspective (by saying things like “it could be worse”) instead of validating their feelings
  • Shaming others for expressing negative emotions
  • Brushing the things that bother you off – saying things like “it is what it is.”
Photo by cottonbro on

Where have we seen toxic positivity lately?

All over the place! This year has been the poster child for toxic positivity. Because things have been so stressful, it’s easier to pretend like everything is swell. I mean, who wants to face the reality that the world is literally changing for the worst? Not me. Particular to the United States, we’ve seen toxic positivity play out in a few ways.

The COVID-19 pandemic

We know by now that COVID-19 did not come to play. It has turned the whole world on its head. In the U.S., people have been furloughed or laid off of work, forced to work from home (home is not all comfort for everyone), care for sick loved ones, homeschool their children, the list goes on. Many have felt displaced and stressed out from trying to keep themselves and their families safe.

With all of this came a slew of toxic positivity. On a large scale, the authorities chose to ignore the scientifically proven danger of the disease and stay open – or open up earlier than recommended by scientists and public health experts. On a smaller scale, people were seen minimizing the weight of the situation and hardships people faced. You’d see people being shamed on social media for not taking advantage of the “time” they “gained” as a result of the lockdown to get in shape, start a business, and the like.

Racial tensions and Black Lives Matter

Back in June, the U.S. was in shambles. People were crying out for justice for a bunch of unarmed Black people who were killed by police officers. Tensions also rose when video footage of racist encounters were being shared across the Internet. With these events came an outpour of support from many coupled with gaslighting and justification of death and despair.

And in came the toxic positivity – where people were told to look on the bright side of things. By saying things like “but we’ve come so far” or “things are so much better for Blacks today than they were before.” Being told to look on the bright side of a tragedy, such as the murder of an unarmed black man, can be damaging for those for which this hits close to home.

The Presidential Election

Recently, the U.S. had its Presidential election to either newly elect Joe Biden or to re-elect Donald Trump. Tensions were higher than they usually are during this kind of election because many people saw it as an opportunity to choose morals and values over violence and divisiveness. Voting for Biden or Trump in this election didn’t mean voting for democratic or republican ideology only. It was more than that. Many people’s health and wellbeing hinged on Biden winning the Presidency.

And when he won, many people felt both relieved and enraged that he’d won by such a small margin. Because it meant that four more years of promoting violence and dismissal of basic human rights. And with his win came toxic positivity from both sides. People were being called to “forgive and forget,” to “live in harmony” despite who they voted for as if violence wasn’t being spewed just days prior.

I’m looking at YOU, toxic positivity!

Why is toxic positivity so dangerous?

You may or may not be thinking: Melina, what’s so bad about looking at the bright side and being optimistic?? Toxic positivity is a bit more complex than just looking at the bright side of things, or being optimistic. It’s different than optimism. With optimism, a person is choosing to have hope and remain positive about the outcome of a negative circumstance. Unlike optimism, with toxic positivity, a person chooses not to acknowledge the circumstance or situation. Therein lies the danger.

With that danger comes an attempted erasure of valid fears and ill feelings. Issues that need to be addressed are minimized. And while it might be easier to just pretend like everything is fine during stressful times, you’re not getting to the root of the problem, leaving the problem to grow until you HAVE to address it. Toxic positivity also has negative affects on your mental health. There will be situations where the “don’t cry over spilled milk” rhetoric cannot be applied to any and every situation.

So true. How does one take the “toxic” out of toxic positivity?!

There are many ways to deal with difficult situations from an optimistic standpoint than to just ignore or dismiss circumstance. You can acknowledge a bad situation and still stay positive without being toxic. With optimism, you’re acknowledging the problem but choosing to have hope and a positive outlook on the outcome. With toxic positivity, you’re pretending the problem doesn’t exist at all. No bueno.

One of the biggest things you can do is to process your feelings without judgement. It’s okay to be angry, sad, disappointed, etc. when you hear bad news. Allow yourself to feel those things instead of pushing them down and slathering on a layer of toxicity like nothing happened. On the same note, allow people around you to process their feelings without you judging them as well. When someone says 2020 sucks, don’t tell them to not cry over spilled milk. We all know that this year is far worse than spilled milk could ever be.

Another antidote to toxic positivity is listening and learning. When someone tells you they’re not doing well because of COVID-19 uncertainty, police brutality, or the results of the election, don’t gaslight them. Listen to what they have to say and learn about why they’re feeling like this. Additionally, doing your own research (hey, Google) can give you more context about a situation and allow you to better understand where they’re coming from.

That’s some deep stuff, Melina.

I know. But it needs to be addressed. Otherwise, I’d be spewing all kinds of toxic positivity ;). This year has been hard enough. Let’s not pretend that it hasn’t and make ourselves and others feel crazy or dramatic. Let me know in the comments what your thoughts are about this – I feel like it’s not talked about enough!

Melina Renee

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