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Toxic positivity at work: Examples and ways to manage it
“Brush it off.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
We all know the value of an encouraging word when we’re feeling down. But being in a rush to will away the negative emotions can actually cause more harm than good. It’s known as toxic positivity, and it’s likely to come from the most well-meaning sources.
In an effort to promote positivity, many people — and workplaces — put their focus on positive emotions, to the exclusion of all else. We’ve all seen the slogans “Positive Vibes Only,” or cheeky signs like “No Complaining Zone.” In one environment I worked in, the vice president famously recited “Never show doubt, hurt, fear, or pain.”
The challenge is that there’s no (good) way to repress your internal (or personal) life for the sake of putting a good face on things — at work or otherwise. This “good vibes” pressure can backfire, making people feel less safe, less positive, less connected, and less resilient.
Many people, leaders, and friends are unaware of the damage that these well-meant platitudes can cause (at least, until they’re on the receiving end of them). And — particularly at work, where company culture is so important — you might be hesitant to encourage employees to show up as their whole selves or show their emotions for fear of optics.
You don’t have to dwell on the dark side, though. Reframing your understanding of what a “positive attitude” means is key to creating a safe, supportive, and ultimately productive environment.
What is toxic positivity?
Of course, positivity on its own isn’t toxic. The human desire to find meaning and silver linings in negative experiences is an admirable one. But there’s an entire range of emotions and experiences that we experience, and the positive lessons don’t come from suppressing them.
What is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity is the pressure to only display positive emotions, suppressing any negative emotions, feelings, reactions, or experiences. It invalidates human experience and can lead to trauma, isolation, and unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Nowadays, we’re subject to a nearly-endless onslaught of “stay positive” messages. In some ways, it’s meant to be protective against the equally aggressive rush of negativity in the news and on social media. But when we rush to push the positive aphorisms, we steamroller over the real (and sometimes painful) experience of the person we’re talking to. This kind of invalidation can be its own trauma.
How toxic positivity impacts mental health
Ironically, the dismissive nature of toxic positivity isn’t at all easy to sweep under the rug. Toxic positivity is actually a form of gaslighting, the term for when someone causes you to question your own sense of reality. It can cause people to dissociate themselves from their negative feelings, rationalize unacceptable experiences, and even gaslight others in turn.
When we insist that people only feel half of their emotional experience, we’re (overtly or covertly) telling them something is wrong with them for feeling otherwise.
Toxic positivity impacts our mental health in the following ways:
When we tell other people to cover up painful or difficult emotions with a happy face, we imply that their true feelings are unacceptable. This often triggers a feeling of guilt or shame in the person — which they now have to deal with on top of the negative experience.
If you’re continually met with dismissive comments and blame when you confide your feelings to someone, how likely are you to share with them again? Whether in personal or professional relationships, we’re likely to stop reaching out for support when we lack validation.
Positivity can be beneficial to our mental health and well-being. However, when faced with a threat to our identity, research indicates that putting a “brave face on it” negatively impacts our well-being. This has notable implications for minorities and people from underrepresented groups both in and outside of work.
Every feeling on the emotion wheel is connected in some way to survival. When we ignore what our own feelings are trying to tell us, we become less adept and less motivated at using this information to solve problems. If we believe that “it’s all what we make of it,” then we’re less likely to believe in our ability (or the need to) find a solution.
Suppressing our emotions has a stressful effect on our bodies. When researchers had two groups of participants watch an emotionally-provoking film, the group encouraged to suppress their feelings showed a higher heart rate than those that could react at will. Over time, continually suppressing one’s own emotions has physical and psychological effects.
How to spot toxic positivity at work
Toxic positivity can happen interpersonally, or it can be a culture issue. When leaders push the idea of staying positive no matter what, it can become widespread among the people in that organization. You might be experiencing any or all of the following:
1. “Everything’s fine.”
No one wants to think that things are falling apart at work, but the fact is, sometimes things aren’t going well. If the company (or team) has clearly fallen on hard times, but no one seems willing to acknowledge it, toxic positivity might be to blame.
2. “They’re just being negative.”
How do people react when someone speaks up or complains? It’s true that some people might find fault in everything. But when legitimate concerns are routinely squashed, it’s a sign that the environment lacks psychological safety. Further, it leaves the person who spoke up feeling isolated, uncertain, and less likely to speak up for themselves or others in the future.
3. “It’s better here than it is elsewhere.”
If your organization has challenges with DEI, belonging, or any other aspect of company culture, it’s not enough to rationalize that it could be worse. This can minimize the experience of underrepresented groups in the company — and get in the way of further progress.
Examples of toxic positivity (and what to say instead)
Toxic, well-meaning statement:
What to say instead:
“Someone always has it worse than you do.”
“I can understand why you’re upset about that.”
“You’ll never get anywhere talking like that.”
“You sound like this is really bothering you.”
“We never get more than we can handle.”
“When you’re ready, I’m here to help.”
“There’s no reason you can’t do that.”
“Let me know if I can support you with this.”
“I don’t see the problem.”
“That sounds like a lot to deal with.”
“This should be easy for you.”
“It’s okay to have an off day or ask for help.”
How to deal with toxic positivity at work
Toxic positivity can be insidious, because we all want to see the silver lining. But there’s value in understanding and acknowledging the dark side of things. When bad things happen or negative thoughts occur, we often get through them faster (and find solutions) when we face them head on.
Whether you’re a people manager or not, you can directly impact the psychological safety of your team. Here are some ways to avoid toxic positivity in the workplace:
What employers can do
1. Create safe spaces
Offer opportunities for employees to share and connect authentically with each other. Consider happy hours, company retreats, and interest groups or ERGs. These spaces give staff the chance to talk openly about whatever might be on their minds.
2. Be honest
Are things not going so well in your industry or organization? Chances are good that you’re not fooling anyone by trying to hide it. Transparency in the workplace (from leaders and between teams) helps to build trust. If the ship needs help getting back on course, you’ll need all hands on deck.
3. Prioritize well-being
Ideally, your employees wouldn’t need explicit permission to take care of themselves. But many people have been trained throughout their careers to see self-sacrifice as a badge of honor. Your team will thrive, though, if you encourage them to take the time to recover, rest, and even just have a bad day. It’s okay to not always be okay.
What employees can do
1. Develop empathy for others and compassion for yourself
Human emotions are part of the human experience. We don’t gain anything by minimizing them, and in fact, we can do a lot of damage. Rather than looking down on someone who isn’t feeling positive, we can develop empathy for them and their circumstances. And if we’re trying to push ourselves to feel better? Talk to yourself as you would a loved one in the same situation.
2. (Gently) stop toxic positivity in its tracks
Most of the time, people who make dismissive comments don’t mean to invalidate others. If you notice yourself or someone else engaging in toxic positivity, you can intervene in a non-confrontational way. Try saying “If you’re feeling that way, there’s probably a reason for it.” This validates the person’s experience and can reopen space for them to talk if they feel shut down by another person’s comment.
If you find yourself having a hard time with this, know that it’s okay to mess up as you work to improve your communication skills.
3. Prioritize problem-solving over problem-squashing
It’s great to have a positive outlook when you encounter difficulty. But pretending everything’s fine doesn’t get you anywhere. When we downplay negative feelings, it’s actually an avoidance technique that prevents us from facing — and solving — the real problem.
If your feelings are making you uncomfortable, see if you can find out what’s at the root of them. A positive mindset might be easier to maintain when you have a strategy in place for change. And solving the issue (instead of ignoring it) will do wonders for your self-esteem.
We all want to feel positive and optimistic — but it’s just not realistic to expect ourselves (or others) feel this way all the time. Making space for ourselves and our feelings (all of them, not just the nice ones) helps us build our emotional regulation skills. And that helps us become more resilient, and better able to find ways through our challenges.
But there’s another side to it, too. When we embrace the entire range of emotions, we become better able to connect with others. We’re more empathic and apt to support them when they need it — and that sets the stage for greater collaboration in the workplace. Nothing’s lost by facing the truth of a difficult situation. And when you do finally get to the other side, no one will need to tell you how to feel.
BetterUp Associate Learning Experience Designer