What is Toxic Positivity? (And why you should be careful of it, especially during the holidays)

Photo by Karsen Winegear

Don’t Tell People to Be Joyful, Ask Them How They Are Instead

As an 8-year old child, Christmas was wonderous and magical for me. I loved the food, the music and, of course, the gifts. Everything about it was a delight.

I remember being in church on Christmas Eve. It was my favorite service of the year because I got to wear a fancy dress and curl my hair, and we sang all my favorite Christmas Carols. Then I saw something that changed my experience.

I looked over at my Nana and it looked like she was trying not to cry. I was so confused; How could anyone be sad on Christmas Eve? She left the church and even at my age I could tell she went outside to cry in the snow.

My grandmother was an amazingly joyful and playful person. She decorated her home with dancing Santas and bright flashing lights. She had candy dishes in every corner and let us eat as much as we wanted this time of year.

That moment in the church, however, she gave herself exactly what she needed. It was too painful to hear everyone singing, “Joy to the World” while she was feeling grief, so she honored her feelings by removing herself.

Nana Taught Me Something Very Important That Night

Sometimes it’s hard to be surrounded by happiness when you are struggling with your own negative feelings.

My grandmother had five children, and two of them died within a year of one another. I just can’t imagine the change in what Christmas was like in their home that first year and every subsequent year. So of course her grief was knocking on her door that evening and countless others.

What Nana did that night was a wonderful example of self-care. She felt her actual feelings rather than trying to stuff them down and pretend that she was feeling the joy that was being proclaimed around her.

We don’t always have that luxury, as sometimes joyfulness is aggressively projected on us.

What Is Toxic Positivity?

It’s okay not to be okay.

The concept of Toxic Positivity occurs when people try to tell themselves or others that they shouldn’t be upset.

Toxic positivity is 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.”

Psychology Today

It is psychologically dangerous to your mental health to bulldoze through negative feelings in an attempt to force yourself to be happy. We know a lot about the power of gratitude and positive thinking, but it’s important not to move too far to the other extreme. There is nothing wrong with you if you are having a strong powerful response to emotional pain and suffering.

Happiness comes when you allow yourself to have the full range of all different emotions, positive and negative.

This can be especially difficult during the holidays.

Traditions and rituals put a spotlight on the absence of our loved ones. Not everyone has the opportunity to be surrounded by friends and family and we might not even know the tip of the iceberg regarding what they are feeling this time of year. Many are feeling the pain of people who are no longer here.

Perhaps you are the one who is struggling, or perhaps there are people around you who need support right now. Whether it’s during the holiday season or not, drowning out unpleasant feelings with jingle bells can sometimes backfire.

What To Do Instead

Often when people see someone they care about in distress, they don’t know how to comfort them. They have warm and loving intentions to make others feel better, but might inadvertently make things worse. We can do this to ourselves as well, with toxicly positive self-talk.

Here are some simple guidelines to keep in mind:

  1. Don’t assume everyone else is happy just because you’re happy.
  2. Don’t tell yourself you should be happy if you’re not.
  3. Remember not to assume that others celebrate the same holidays that you do. It’s better to ask.
  4. If you know someone is experiencing a loss, don’t be afraid to talk to them about it directly. Most likely, you will not be upsetting them by bringing it up, you’ll be a breath of fresh air by allowing them to be authentic.
  5. If you are feeling down, allow yourself permission to feel this way without self-judgment.
  6. Avoid trying to convince yourself or anyone else, “Things will get better.” or “At least you’ve got your health.”
  7. Be willing to name feelings like fear, grief, and sadness with the same frequency as you speak of peace, joy, and happiness.

I truly hope you are feeling happiness and joy as you are reading this post, but if you’re not, that’s okay too.


Laura Silverstein, LCSW

Laura Silverstein is a Certified Gottman Couples Therapist, and author of Love Is An Action Verb.  She has thirty years of clinical experience and is the founder and co-owner of Main Line Counseling Partners, based in Bryn Mawr, PA. Laura is a frequent contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog and has appeared as a relationship expert in media outlets such as the New York Times, ABC, and Today. She helps couples find more happiness as a research clinician, speaker, trainer, and writer with a positive, action-oriented style.

4 thoughts on “What is Toxic Positivity? (And why you should be careful of it, especially during the holidays)”

  1. As a society we give more space and acceptance to emotions like joy, happiness, etc than to sadness, fear. We expect people to say “I am good” when we ask them how they are. I really appreciate your guidelines in this blog. I have gradually learned to be with any emotions I may have. When I accept what is here I have more space to decide how to proceed in a positive healthy way and give myself the care I need. I practice and teach mindfulness. In mindfulness we stop to pay attention to what is and then bring kindness and patience whether the emotions are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

  2. Hi @laura, I so appreciate this thoughtful post, especially at this time of year. I can already without much effort think of four people I will share this post with that needs to hear it. It’s a nice reminder that we should honour our feelings. I hope you are truly feeling happiness and joy this year this holiday season, but if you’re not, that’s okay too!

    • Thank you for these kind and thoughtful words, Tania! I hope that you and the people you are thinking of can find comfort in honoring your own feelings. All the best, Laura

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