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Knowledge, Perspectives

Toxic Positivity

Maria O'Meara

Since the 1980s we have seen the wellness and wellbeing movement gaining significant momentum across the globe. Today, many are mindful of this and tailor their lifestyle to accommodate its importance. It is, however, possible to toxify this movement, by creating a forced sense of wellness and positivity, sometimes completely disregarding the value of acknowledging pain and working through it.

Having completely changed our lives over the past year, the pandemic has directed our attention towards the wellness and wellbeing concepts; we have been encouraged to take ownership of our health and make any changes that may provide us with a more resilient existence. You don’t have to look hard to find established techniques and advice, with new and fantastic innovative ideas emerging daily. Social media channels and wellbeing gurus capture our attention by pushing slogans such as ‘Be positive!’, ‘Good vibes only!’ and ‘Happiness is a choice’. I have used many of these statements myself and have been a strong advocate of developing and nurturing an optimistic attitude.

Being optimistic does not necessarily mean being ignorant of struggles or concerns. An optimistic approach helps us to anchor onto possibilities rather than fixating on obstacles and restrictions. That said, we need to be mindful of the fact that extreme and superficial positivism can indeed be toxic and harmful by preventing the individual from legitimising and addressing their feelings of grief, fear, anxiety, stress, depression, or sadness. The culture of ‘Toxic positivity’ promotes a pretence of happiness.

The pressure to stay productive and resilient (if only appearing so) during difficult or traumatic times can evoke feelings of failure, guilt, anger, and disappointment, and while it may be well-intended by us or others around, a ‘false positive’ attitude to a serious and challenging circumstance could lead to the opposite outcome. Unrealistic expectations of ‘forced positivity’ can result in people suppressing their emotions which causes a lack of acknowledgement or validation.

Dr Jaime Zuckerman, a clinical psychologist states, “Toxic positivity is the assumption – either by oneself or others – that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should have a positive mindset (or radiate positive vibes).” He also explains that “toxic positivity, at its core, is an avoidance strategy used to push away and invalidate any internal discomfort. Failure to effectively process emotions in a timely manner can lead to a myriad of psychological difficulties, including disrupted sleep, increased substance abuse, risk of an acute stress response, prolonged grief, or even PTSD.”

Dr. Viktor Emil Frankl  M.D., PhD. (1905–1997) an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, as well as a Holocaust survivor, spoke about ‘Tragic Optimism’ in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. ‘Tragic Optimism’ refers to the acknowledgements and acceptance of suffering, challenges and pain while at the same time reframes those challenges and pains to meaningful lessons that generate hope and life purpose.

We must allow ourselves to express our feelings freely with those who are most likely to listen and be supportive. Equally, we must all afford those around us the same opportunity. In recognition of Mental Health Awareness week (10-16 May) let’s all take the time to remind one another that wellness and wellbeing derive from a healthy response to the challenges of life. We can find strength through our vulnerability.

Maria O’Meara, MA, BSc (Hons)

Empowerment and Personal Performance Coach,



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