GuidesEmployee experienceWhat is toxic positivity?

What is toxic positivity?

Last updated

16 November 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Warren Jonas ACC

As mental health awareness builds, we’re seeing discussions about toxic positivity. When someone dismisses negative emotions to focus solely on the positive, they’re practicing toxic positivity. 

Suppressing negative feelings is an unhealthy coping mechanism, and it can lead to issues like isolation. If your friend is struggling with depression or tricky life events and your advice is to “cheer up,” you probably won’t be besties for much longer. After all, invalidating the human experience isn’t the way to win friends. 

Let’s learn about toxic positivity and how to recognize it everywhere, including in the workplace.

How is toxic positivity different from positive thinking?

If you’re a positive thinker, you’re capable of critical thinking and realism. Toxic positivity relies on an “everything’s fine” philosophy, ignoring problems and denying true emotions.

Positive thinkers have healthier self-esteem as they’re willing to face what is happening, while people practicing toxic positivity live in denial.

Toxic positivity examples

Ever heard "everything happens for a reason"? That’s a great example of toxic positivity. 

When someone has a challenging experience and hears this familiar phrase, they feel invalidated. The all-too-common saying is condescending and belittling. 

Are you going through life and pretending everything’s fine? That’s another example of toxic positivity. Ignoring your problems means they can easily spiral into bigger issues. 

Imagine you’ve got an overdue bill. Instead of dealing with it, you adopt the “ah, it’ll be fine” mentality. Before you know it, the company’s added fees and late charges. And your credit score has taken a dent. Unfortunately, you can’t toxic positivity your way out of capitalism. 

Toxic positivity in the workplace

Toxic positivity in the workplace can come from management or workers who believe that focusing on the positive and avoiding negativity can solve problems. Unfortunately, this leads to stressed workers and lowered productivity.  

Workers may hesitate to bring up issues if a company has a “positive vibes only” mantra. That can lead to discontentment and higher employee turnover. Because who wants to work somewhere they can’t discuss problems?

How toxic positivity affects employees

There are a few ways this emotional mismanagement can impact mental health:

Loss of trust

Toxic positivity can cause a loss of trust between workers and management. A lack of trust is a poor foundation for any company. 

Triggers shame 

When employees believe they can’t express their thoughts and feelings, it may trigger shame or guilt. This can further lower their mood and demoralize them.

Lowers well-being

Fake positivity suppresses genuine feelings, and this invalidation can harm your well-being. 

Increases stress

An emotional regulation study demonstrated a higher heart rate among people suppressing their feelings than those able to speak about their concerns.

Impacts connection

Workers won’t want to bond with people who are constantly dismissing their feelings by telling them everything’s fine. 

Reduces self-efficacy

Employees are less likely to believe in their abilities when management and co-workers dismiss their feelings. It also impacts motivation. 

Signs of toxic positivity in the workplace

Wondering how to spot toxic positivity in the workplace? Look out for these things:

Surrounded by yes-people

If your workmates always agree with people and never voice concerns, they could be experiencing toxic positivity. 

A clever way to counter this is to have a casual chat with your colleagues. See if they have any concerns about the company or their work.

Excessive flattery

Everyone likes a compliment, but it’s possible to take it too far. If you’re hearing excessive praise, you may be witnessing manipulation. Constant compliments are less sincere, and they can actually be demeaning and patronizing.

Fake smiles and mismatched expressions 

Seeing happy faces where the smiles don’t seem to reach the eyes? Maybe these fake smiles are just keeping up appearances of a happy workplace. 

You may even spot someone saying positive things with a scowl on their face. If the expressions don’t match the words, toxic positivity may be an issue. 

Low productivity 

Some workers may appear busy all the time. However, their productivity still appears low when you check the data. That could be a sign of invalidation impacting their mental health.

Disguised stress

People surrounded by toxic positivity can show signs of anxiety and stress, which may lead to more burnout and sick days.

Inauthentic work relationships

Toxic positivity can weaken workplace friendships. Needing to stay positive all the time can reduce bonding as people need to express their feelings and deal with tricky problems to thrive. 

Little innovation

If workers’ creativity has stagnated, toxic positivity could be to blame. Being unable to take risks or express discontent can cause tremendous pressure, stifling innovation.

Unsure of strengths and abilities

Imagine you’re constantly hearing how much your company appreciates your innovative mind. That sounds amazing, but those compliments fall flat if the company never uses your ideas. 

A lack of follow-through can make you unsure of your strengths and abilities. A true sharing of positives and negatives tells you precisely where you stand.

Dealing with toxic positivity

Tips for employers 

Employers have a big responsibility to ensure the workplace is healthy. Some ways to tackle toxic positivity include:

  • Creating a safe space where workers can interact and connect with open communication

  • Encouraging transparency to build trust 

  • Ensuring workers take time out to unwind

  • Asking employees about any concerns and dealing with them

Tips for employees

If your workplace is rife with toxic positivity, it can be tricky to handle. Here are some handy tips:

  • Self-compassion: Give yourself grace and acknowledge your experiences

  • Develop empathy for your colleagues

  • Validate the concerns of colleagues when others invalidate them

  • Put on your problem-solving hat: Don’t allow others to sweep issues under the rug

FAQs

Is toxic positivity a disorder?

While toxic positivity isn’t a disorder, it can affect mental health by increasing anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, and guilt

What is the root of toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity comes from needing to have perfect lives without any negativity. Embracing that everyone has highs and lows can lower the chances of exhibiting toxic positivity traits.

Can toxic positivity cause a lack of empathy?

Since toxic positivity projects positive emotions even in negative situations, it can create a lack of empathy towards others. The mindset is harmful: Not all situations need a positive manner.

Is it okay to be negative?

All feelings are valid for the human experience. It only becomes an issue when people actively suppress negativity or positivity. While there can be toxic positivity and negativity, we can express our feelings in a balanced way.

Is toxic positivity gaslighting?

Some people believe toxic positivity is a form of gaslighting as it invalidates the experience and creates a false reality. Making someone question the validity of their emotions is manipulative.

What are the characteristics of toxic positivity?

The key characteristics of toxic positivity are: 

  • Demeaning grief or other's emotions

  • Pressuring people into positivity

  • Silencing trauma or negative feelings

  • Ignoring problems instead of tackling them

How common is toxic positivity?

According to a Forbes and Science of People study, 67.8% of respondents experienced toxic positivity in the past seven days

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