How Too Much Positivity Can Backfire

How Too Much Positivity Can Backfire Recognize the Negative Effects of Excessive Positivity

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In a therapy setting, I occasionally come across folks who come to me to discuss something going wrong in their life and when I attempt to validate their experience and emotions, they will exclusively respond with the silver linings or the positivity they can find within the situation. This positivity can be very helpful and serve as a source of resilience or coping for the person. However, as with many things in life, when taken to the extreme, it can disrupt functioning in the long-term. In these situations, when the person is unwilling or unable to recognize anything other than positivity in the situation, I am cued that the situation isn’t the (only) problem, and the excessive positivity is likely extending the life of the problem.

This article will talk about how positivity is both an incredibly powerful factor in resilience (being able to cope with the tough things life throws your way) and can be used as an avoidant coping strategy that perpetuates further harm. 

Positivity as a form of resilience

There is no doubt that positivity can help us through many situations. Particularly for those of us whose default mode is to constantly critique and find the faults in situations, forcing ourselves to find positivity can balance out that negativity and help us to more effectively cope with all the demands of life. In fact, one psychological theory suggests that positive thinking and positive emotions help get us ready for the challenges that may come our way in the future (Fredrickson, 2004). People who engage in positive thinking tend to have lower levels of stress overall (Naseem & Khalid, 2010) and tend to be more resilient in overcoming adversity (Matel-Anderson et al., 2019). 

When positivity goes wrong

However, just like most things in life, when taken too far, excessive positivity can actually have negative effects on our life. This is true of any coping mechanism. For example, folks who exercise for 6 hours per day as a coping mechanism may also experience disruptions in their functioning in other domains of life. Similarly, people who only look at their positive emotions and tend to ignore or push away the negative ones are likely to experience disruptions in their life. This is particularly true for when the positivity feels forced or not genuine. 

I want to mention here that this concept is typically referred to as “toxic positivity.” Toxic positivity generally refers to ignoring or minimizing any negative or uncomfortable feelings one might have, which can cause further problems. While my personal opinions and feelings about this term are neutral, I am intentionally not using this particular phrasing in an attempt to reach as many people as possible and reduce any defensiveness that tends to arise when using such inflammatory language. Therefore, I am choosing to label it as “excessive” positivity instead. 

One study found that excessive positivity tends to be a habitual practice; when we engage in this mindset and it works for us one time, we tend to do it more and more in the hopes that it will always help out. Additionally, people engage in this mindset as a mechanism to avoid their negative emotions in hopes that they can just get on with the many other things they need to do in life. Friends and family also contribute to an excessively positive outlook on life as we are constantly told to “look on the bright side” or that “things happen for a reason.” At the same time, people in this research study indicated that their excessive positivity tends to result in a minimization of their true experiences, a bottling up of emotions, masking their emotions, isolation, and avoidance of all things “difficult” (Leigh Quinto, 2021). All of these outcomes tend to prolong difficult situations, emotions, or experiences. 

This excessive positivity is readily found in online spaces like social media. One analysis of this phenomenon on Facebook found that the excessive positivity contributed to a less inclusive space for the people involved in the group (in this case a group for individuals with chronic illnesses; Lecompte-Van Poucke, 2022). When people are unable or uncomfortable expressing their genuine emotions (regardless of whether they are positive or negative), they feel like they have to hide a part of their experience, leading to isolation.

Finally, some researchers indicate that positivity is a way of thinking that can be part of either a fixed or a growth mindset. Excessive positivity tends to be a result of a fixed mindset, in which the people believe that this is the only way to think and approach life. However, when positivity is viewed as part of a growth mindset, the individual tends to see setbacks and challenges as an opportunity to grow and learn (essentially honoring both positive and negative emotions). 

Related: 5 Ways to Cultivate a Growth Mindset

How to avoid excessive positivity

So, what can we do to avoid this excessively positive mindset? 

While there is no singular way to do this, the best approach to harnessing healthy levels of positivity is to acknowledge your true emotions (all of them) as they happen. If you are able to maintain awareness of and honor your emotions, regardless of whether they are positive or negative (or both simultaneously, as addressed in this guided meditation for working with conflicting emotions), you will likely feel more balanced in your experience. There are some people who tend to feel more positive emotions and others who tend to feel more negative emotions and neither of those experiences are wrong or bad. When it goes wrong is when we overdo it on either end of the spectrum without seeking out or allowing ourselves to feel balanced. 

In this same vein, push yourself to try to find balance in your experiences. Allow and encourage yourself to feel the full range of positive and negative emotions (as long as that is what you are truly feeling). If you tend to default to negative emotions, ask yourself what you are grateful for, excited about, or what brings you joy. If your default is to be excessively positive, maybe pause to reflect on whether any negative emotions are present. Either way, don’t force an experience that isn’t true, but open yourself up to the possibility of other emotions.

One great way to do this is through practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is really about increasing your awareness of the present moment without judgment. You can do this through formal meditative practices or by nonjudgmentally checking in with your current experience throughout your day.  If you would like a more formal practice, try out any of Fitness Blender’s guided mindfulness meditations here. On the other hand, you could set strategic times throughout your day for a less formal check-in. Or, you could do a check-in anytime you have an extra moment that you don’t know what to do with. Regardless of when you do it, ask yourself, “how am I truly feeling in this moment?” Allow yourself to examine the emotions similarly to how you observe things within nature — with connection but no judgment.

Finally, because so much of the excessive positivity comes from our interactions with other people (those telling us to find the silver linings, for example), we can help to combat a culture of excessive positivity by modeling for others how to be supportive without forcing positivity. This is difficult because the prompting for positivity often stems from wanting to cheer others up or from our own discomfort with negative emotions. However, by asking other people how they truly feel and honoring negative emotions as they arise, that validates their emotions and suggests to them (and others around) that all emotions are okay and welcome. For example, when someone complains about their job, rather than telling them that they should be grateful to have a job or to figure out what they like about their job, maybe just say “that sucks.” I find both personally and professionally that this validation goes pretty far. 

What ways have you seen excessive positivity pop up in your life or the life of those around you? How does this impact your experiences of situations? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

References

Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical transactions of the royal society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1367-1377. 

Lecompte-Van Poucke, M. (2022). ‘You got this!’: A critical discourse analysis of toxic positivity as a discursive construct on Facebook. Applied Corpus LInguistics, 2, 100015. 

Leigh Quinto, K. (2021). Toxic positivity and its role on college students’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic [Unpublished undergraduate thesis]. Rizal Technological University. 

Matel-Anderson, D. M., Bekhet, A. K., & Garnier-Villarreal, M. (2019). Mediating effects of positive thinking and social support on suicide resilience. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 41(1), 25-41. 

Naseem, Z., & Khalid, R. (2010). Positive thinking in coping with stress and health outcomes: Literature Review. Journal of Research and Reflections in Education, 4(1), 42-61. 

Wibowo, R. S. (2020). The answers are not always optimism: Overcoming toxic positivity during COVID-19 outbreak. [Unpublished essay]. Binus University.