We’ve all come across those “high vibe” sparkly-toothed people before.
Perhaps we’ve gone through financial troubles, are suffering a bad relationship, have a sick loved one, or are feeling depressed.
We’ll then reach out for support to one of these love-and-light people and are met with a wall of positive statements like:
- “Just focus on the positive!”
- “Don’t be so negative!”
- “Think happy thoughts!”
- “You’ll get over it!”
- “Stay positive!”
- “All is love!”
- “There’s always a silver lining!”
But these sayings, while supposedly wise and spiritual, don’t actually help us. Instead, they fill us with rage and nausea – we have the sudden urge to leave the room screaming!
Why do we feel this way, you might wonder?
The answer is that these statements are invalidating and they are a form of toxic positivity.
When we are in pain, we want to be seen, acknowledged, and validated. We don’t want to be dished out superficial advice.
One of the biggest traps on the spiritual journey is toxic positivity or the “good vibes only” fallacy. And if you keep coming across it on your path, whether within others or yourself, here’s how to handle it:
Table of contents
What is Toxic Positivity?
Toxic positivity is, quite simply, an addiction to positive thinking. It can be seen as an underlying attempt to avoid negativity or painful feelings in ourselves and others. In other words, toxic positivity can be seen as a kind of “negativity phobia” where we bypass conflict through an obsession with maintaining “happy” thoughts and emotions.
Toxic positivity & Spiritual Awakening
For anyone on the spiritual awakening journey (or those who have a basic interest in self-growth), coming across toxic positivity is inevitable.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you contemplate toxic positivity and the “good vibes only” message? Usually, it’s one of those new-age bookstores – or that super “woke” person who loves crystals and reiki.
But toxic positivity is lurking everywhere – in meditation groups, yoga retreats, self-improvement books, everyday people, work colleagues, and seemingly grounded teachers/gurus dishing out spiritual guidance.
While on the surface focusing only on the positive seems empowering, it’s actually one of the most unhealthy philosophies in life.
Here are a couple of reasons:
- When we’re trapped in the cycle of seeking positive vibes and avoiding conflict, we’re not actually growing as people. Instead, we’re stuck in a negativity-avoidance cycle that encourages us to abandon ourselves (and others) in times of need.
- Toxic positivity doesn’t give space for people to feel and process their emotions, and therefore promotes mental and emotional repression. This repression, in turn, leads to recurring problems in our lives (I’m talking addictive tendencies, explosions of anger, chronic anxiety, neurotic behaviors – the whole shebang).
Let’s face it: on the surface, the “good vibes only” message appears kind of cute and new agey.
It’s a message that can even be mistaken for being empowering and is frequently marketed as the key ingredient to a flourishing life.
But the reality is that dogmatic positivity (in any shape or form), denies our basic need for authentic self-expression – and we need to be very careful of that.
4 Disturbing and Harmful Signs of Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity is forced, false positivity. It may sound innocuous on the surface, but when you share something difficult with someone and they insist that you turn it into a positive, what they’re really saying is, My comfort is more important than your reality.– Dr. Susan David, (Author of Emotional Agility)
I have come across my fair share of “turn that frown upside down!” people in my field of work.
Below, I’ll share with you how exactly toxic positivity can manifest that I’ve observed through the years:
- A phobia of critical thinking – In the realm of toxic positivity, critical thought is generally perceived as something “negative” and unsavory. Questioning and pointing out flaws and logical fallacies is something frowned upon and is often immediately shunned – along with the person – who is perceived as a “troll,” “trouble-maker,” “argumentative person,” or most condescending of all, an “unawakened person.”
- Dogmatic positivity – If you don’t agree with what the Good Vibes Tribe has to say or what they believe, you’re passive-aggressively outlawed. Don’t expect to receive genuine empathy or emotional support from them – you’ll be met with a wall of feel-good aphorisms and spiritual rhetoric.
- Spiritual ego disguised as ‘wokeness’ – There’s an undeniable undercurrent of self-righteousness inherent in toxic positivity and Good Vibes Only mentality. It’s almost as if such people believe themselves to be “more evolved” or on a higher plane of existence than others. This spiritual egotism triggers feelings of shame and unworthiness in those reaching out for help and support.
- Gaslighting – Gaslighting is a manipulation technique that is favored by the Good Vibes crowd – it makes you question your sanity and reality, therefore increasing the power of the “always be happy” philosophy. Never doubt the power of the spiritual ego, it will go to any length to maintain its position of rightness and righteousness.
Can you recognize any of these behaviors in another person, group of people, or even yourself?
How to Deal With Toxic Positivity
If you frequently come in contact with someone who vomits rainbows-and-sunshine over you, you might wonder what you can do to put an end to such purgatory (I say unsarcastically).
It’s not nice being gaslit, invalidated, and shamed for our painful emotions or experiences. Here’s what you can do:
- Know that experiencing negative emotions or circumstances in normal. It’s okay to feel scared, angry, jealous, sad, or insecure. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You’re allowed to be human!
- Understand that their behavior comes from fear. People don’t adopt cultish ideas for the heck of it; they do it out of an underlying sense of fear and powerlessness. So once you have the emotional space, take some time to come to grips with this reality. It’s empowering to understand the deeper causes of someone’s harmful behavior. (Read: Why Are People So Mean?)
- Seek out someone who is ready to hold space for you. Toxic positivity doesn’t hold space for anyone – it can’t because it’s too busy try to run away from negativity. So find someone you trust, maybe a friend, family member, or therapist, and ask them to hold space for you. Holding space means listening to and embracing another person, exactly how they are. If someone shows signs that they’re not able to hold space for you, keep your boundaries and find someone who can.
- Practice self-care. It’s not nice being bulldozed by positivity – it feels terribly isolating and can make you feel like there’s something “wrong” with you. So don’t forget to take care of yourself. Do something nurturing as an act of self-love like making a calming cup of tea or taking a walk in nature. (Read: How to Love Yourself)
What to Do if YOU Are Struggling With Toxic Positivity
In life, we like to believe that there are victims and perpetrators. But sometimes, the victim can become the perpetrator and vice versa.
None of us are perfect, and that’s okay.
Here’s what to do if you are the one who has fallen into the Good Vibes Only trap:
1. Pinpoint which issues you’re struggling with
Put simply, toxic positivity is a type of negativity phobia.
See which of the following issues you’re struggling with (and be honest):
- You avoid people or situations that create uncomfortable feelings in you at all costs.
- You’re attracted towards the lighter and more “high vibe” aspect of spirituality, but feel repelled (and maybe also irresistibly drawn to) the shadow side or Underworld path of spirituality.
- You can’t handle criticism well (even if it is a well-meaning critique) and feel terribly upset or insecure.
- You feel unusually defensive or on-guard around others.
- You’re highly sensitive to people’s thoughts and opinions about you.
- You intentionally try to block out all forms of negativity from your life.
- You refuse to acknowledge your shadows.
- You tend to be an idealist.
- You feel intense and overwhelming emotions such as anger, fear, hatred, or disgust when you’re confronted with a negative person.
If you don’t journal yet, invest in a journal and make a regular habit of writing down your thoughts and feelings. The simple habit of journaling is a wonderful way of developing more self-awareness. (See: How to Journal)
You can also use the above symptoms to journal about. Ask yourself questions such as, “Where did this originate?” “How does this impact me/others?” “What can I do to create more balance?”
2. Understand that conflict/negativity is actually a good thing
Here’s why conflict is such a powerful teacher:
- It helps you to develop more patience and forbearance around others.
- It helps you to “see beyond the veil” of another’s actions and develop deeper insight and compassion for them.
- It reveals your own areas of vulnerability and insecurity.
- It shines a light on your shadow tendencies.
- It can point out where you’re genuinely going wrong.
- It’s a no-bullshit teacher that reveals how you can grow more.
- It’s a way to test your emotional and spiritual maturity.
Having someone say “no, you’re wrong” or “that’s totally ridiculous!” is an immensely valuable gift.
Even if the person is NOT coming from a conscious or caring place, it’s a gift to experience conflict from others for it reveals the truth about ourselves.
The way in which we react to others speaks volumes about our capacity to practice kindness and understanding.
Furthermore, the way in which we react to others is a mirror of our own pain, insecurities, and fears.
3. Learn how to embrace conflict
Embracing conflict doesn’t mean enjoying it or seeking it out.
Instead, embracing conflict is about adopting a mindful attitude that values the experience as something useful to learn and grow from.
Here’s how to work towards embracing conflict and overcoming toxic positivity:
1. Stop and take a deep breath. Ground yourself. Catch yourself before you react. Walk away if you must. Take a few moments to gather yourself, and then respond.
2. Ask yourself, “What is this person or situation secretly teaching me?” Sure, the person might be acting like an asshole, but what message is being embodied through their actions?
3. Be curious and adopt an attitude of interested awareness when you feel triggered. Look at the emotions surging through your body. Examine the thoughts in your mind. Take note of how you’re feeling. To do this, you need to practice mindfulness exercises like conscious breathing or observing. If you can’t get into a mindful place within yourself, walk away or count your breaths.
4. Ask yourself, “What is actually hidden behind this person’s negativity?” Stop taking emotions and apparent motives at face value. Try to think of all the possible reasons why that person is being negative. For example, maybe they have severely low self-worth. Maybe they are lonely and want attention (whether good or bad). Maybe they just went through a breakup. Maybe one of their loved ones just died. Maybe they’re experiencing a stressful day. Maybe they feel angry and sad about life. Be open to alternative explanations, there are endless possibilities.
5. If you get emotionally triggered, reflect on the experience. What was it about the person that infuriated you so much? Instead of blaming them for being “low vibe” or toxically negative, try to find the opportunity for growth that is being presented to you.
6. Understand that all negative behavior has its root in pain. When I say pain, I mean emotional pain such as sadness, loneliness, emptiness, and fear. Once you can truly understand this for yourself, you’ll be able to empathize with the person (instead of trying to get them to be positive).
4. Hold space for your own pain
Chances are that if you’re in the habit of being excessively positive, you were taught at some point that showing any form of negative emotion was bad and deserved punishment.
To overcome toxic positivity, you’ll need to learn how to befriend your pain. Furthermore, by turning toward rather than away from your negative emotions, you’ll finally be able to hold space for others in a meaningful and compassionate way.
To hold space for your pain, you’ll need to:
- Learn how to practice genuine self-love
- Take care of your wounded inner child
- Face and identify your shadow self
Remember that dealing with negativity in a healthy way is a process, so it will take some time. Be gentle with yourself, go slowly, and be persistent – you’ve got this!
Toxic Positivity FAQ
Before we finish this article, let’s explore some frequently asked questions surrounding toxic positivity:
Responding to toxic positivity differs according to the context. If you come across well-meaning toxic positivity in a close relationship, clarify your needs to the other person and let them know that you simply need them to hold space for you. For example, you might say, “I know that being positive is good, but right now I just need you to hold space for me and listen.” If the person wasn’t well-meaning (i.e., judgmental, condescending, rude) – no matter whether in a close relationship or acquaintance situation – swiftly end the conversation. Unless you’d like to argue or tell them off (which will exacerbate the situation and reinforce their toxic positivity – although I don’t blame you!), the best thing to do is end the conversation naturally and create space. You now know that such a person isn’t suitable for holding emotional space for you. Then, find someone who can support you, if even a silent pet who you can cuddle with.
Those who are toxically positive usually don’t intend to be abusive – they think they’re being helpful or supportive. Unfortunately, toxic positivity is indeed a form of emotional abuse that is often unintentionally committed because it mistreats the person who is “being negative” by denying their reality.
Any behavior which denies, overrides, judges, or rejects the reality of “negative” feelings or experiences in another person is a form of toxic positivity. An example is telling a friend about something that upset you, and them responding with a dismissive statement like “You’ll get over it!” “Happiness is a choice!” etc.
Yes, toxic positivity can absolutely be a form of gaslighting! If gaslighting is all about making you doubt your reality, toxic positivity can be a handy tool to make you feel like you’re “overly negative,” “too sensitive,” “imagining things,” etc.
Toxic positivity is a trap that’s so easy to fall into on the spiritual path – or simply life in general!
Whether you’re experiencing this cult of positivity at the hands of another, or within yourself, remember that having negative emotions is normal, healthy, and human.
Does nature judge itself for having thunderstorms, avalanches, and earthquakes? No! So why should you? You are part of this dance of life too.
What is your experience with toxic positivity?
What I like very much about this website, is the very realistic approach to spirituality.
I see many spiritual sources, most of them, give advices like ‘Be only happy’ (Which is the topic of the article) or ‘Don’t Be happy, don’t be sad!’ or ‘Stop thoughts and be peaceful!’ or ‘leave all your goals and wishes now, they are meaningless!’ Or; ‘Hate is a shame, get ride of it by emergency forces!’
For me, It’s a suicide for my mental health to suppress all emotions and thoughts, I have tried that once, and I tried to be happy all the time, mistaking it by ‘spiritual enlightnment’ or to believe that pain doesn’t exist, or to sit and meditate and do art all the day, believing blindly, and suppressing all thoughts that wants to do usual things.
I mean, its not liberating at all to try desperately to fly while I still don’t have wings.
Thanks for your efforts both of you, your realistic approach made me see spirituality now, as a simple, but powerful daily practice. That helps me being more aware, and truth-oriented in all areas of life, as much as possible.
Thanks. This is a great article and very helpful.
It makes so much sense and does help me to see how I can be more compassionate towards both those people that need to always emphasize the positive (minimizers) and those people that can be judgmental (myself included) of the minimizers.
Toxic positivity is everywhere. For awhile, it existed in the political realm; now that the true culprits of the toxic discussion have been exposed, it is easier to talk to toxically positive people. IMO, the means of manipulation was through gaslighting, which is something narcissists do quite well. Wondering how many toxically positive people are also narcissists?
What an enlightening article. I’m in the final stages of a 30 year marriage to a sunshine guru. When she left I was devastated to say the least. Her toxic positivity left no space for my negative emotions. An hurt, pain, fear that I tried to express was brushed away a continuous cycle of toxic positivity. It was if I were supposed to be above human. The gaslighting was the worst by far, I suffer from a mental disorder, I often questioned my own sanity, wondered worriedly where all the emotional pain, anger and rage was coming from. I felt like a lost person in the company of my family; children included. I’ve been living separately for eight months now. I am alone, often lonely but I’m not facing the daily abuse of toxic positivity. One day I may even find a woman who will “hold space” for me. I will do the same for her. Love the work you’re doing for us out here.
I was relieved and curious when I saw this article highlighted in my email this morning. I think there are really great points here and other points that can be taken in different ways which is evident from some comments. First, full disclosure. I’m certified to practice reiki but I do not have a business and tend to stick to animals. I would not consider myself “woke” and actually feel somewhat frustrated by the “woke” lot because they tend to be the flash and dazzle “let me confuse you” people. Second, I have lived with depression for 28 years and anxiety for 20. I need to say those two points. I think there is a place for positive mantras and finding the positive in a person, place, or thing. However, I do not think it’s healthy to discount the negatives and difficulties in life. All of these things are experiences that help us grow. There are positives to look forward to but time and place to get there. I must have been lucky because the reiki community I belong to talks about balance and is not all sunshine and roses. On the flip side, the CBT programs I have had… Read more »
Oh gosh yes!! I met someone like this!! She infuriated me! I would be open and honest and she would respond with something like “oh look at the positive, we are so blessed, blah blah blah” it was vomit inducing and it was so insincere and fake. She seemed like a robot actually.
I’ve often thought the most positive, loving, and kind thing we can do is to sit with our fear, pain, and doubts. Compassion for all our emotions, especially the so-called negative ones, is the way toward experiencing and expressing love. I’ve been struggling with a serious health issue, as well as significant losses over the past two years. I want to scream when someone says to me, “Stay strong! Be positive!” The comments negate my experience and leave me wondering if I am strong enough. With reflection I return to realizing how much strength it takes to put one foot in front of the other and embrace the awful feelings. When I do stay open to the pain, doubt, and even anger, I then feel I have the strength to choose ways to support myself and find small joys in the midst of pain. This is a great article – thanks so much!
This article is absolutely helpful because it talks about having a healthy balance of your emotions rather than sweeping and repressing your negative emotions underneath the rug. You have to let yourself get through and feel these emotions first before growing. Toxic positivity does come in all forms. However people need a healthy balance between positivity and negativity to help them grow on their spiritual journey and to help others along the way let them know they are coming from a genuine place versus fake. There is such thing as fake positivity so I completely understand where this article is coming from. It’s not saying all positivity is bad and toxic, it is saying that you have to have a healthy balance in life in order to grow.
Thank you for posting this article it is very helpful
Agree with every line of this article! I always say people are addicted to “comfort”, whether it’s the people or environment they surround themselves with or simply the weather. But emotional maturity and maturity of any kind can only be built by experiencing SOME level of discomfort. Life ain’t all rainbows and butterflies, as they say! But the beauty in the chaos is that we can “deal” and even flourish in it! Thanks for such a well written and much needed article!
Hi there, I usually Love all of your articles but I have to be a dissenting opinion on this particular topic . I understand the idea that when an individual is feeling bad, they don’t necessarily want positive affirmations. However to say that being positive is toxic is taking the idea of toxicity too far. When a person says something positive to another, it comes from a place of “I really hope this helps them feel better”. Likewise the expectation that every individual can always say the right thing to a sad person is ridiculous… and when you don’t get it right, now your the bad guy?!? I often find that people who have depressive personalities or emotions very often just want to feel bad.. and that’s okay.. but don’t try to drag the room down with you… and then get upset when people try to cheer you up or lighten the mood. I’ve been depressed when I was in my college years. It’s hard and it sucks!!! However I learned that I had to CHOOSE happiness every single day! Happiness sadness ..sitting in any particular emotion is a choice. We all experience bad things however some choose to never… Read more »