Coping with Ups and Downs: Addressing Toxic Positivity

Written by Samantha Wall, LCSW
Edited by Joe DeNoon


Ups and downs, peaks and valleys, highs and lows, ebbs and flows, each of these idioms bring the same message; that there will be good and bad experiences throughout our lives. In life, we are constantly going through experiences. sometimes those experiences are easy for us, but many times, they can also be stressful. The above sayings are used to communicate that there will be different experiences in life where things may seem better and others worse, but what does that really mean? Why do we usually strive for the ups but dread the downs? 

In more recent times, rhetoric surrounds us that says we need to be in a good mood or positive, even when it may not feel authentic to our current state of being. This rhetoric presents itself through social media, friends, family members, and our place of work. We are told the message to be positive, and push through, that our negative headspace is affecting others. If we listen to this message, it does not allow us to process or address the feelings we are experiencing. I am not saying that we should not try to look at the positive, but we should be able to address the balance. The balance of the different emotions that come with ups and downs. 

This focus on the positive can create what we call toxic positivity. This is the idea that being positive all the time can be detrimental to our mental health. Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how difficult a situation, people should maintain a positive mindset, which can be so harmful to our mindset for many reasons. It can shame us, cause guilt, make us avoid authentic emotions, and prevent personal growth. When humans are suffering or having a hard time, it is important that our emotions feel valid. Our emotions being validated encourages connection, creates trusting relationships, and regulates us. When we go through tough emotions, it is those who are there for us that we end up feeling more connected to and trust later on when we struggle again. 

Toxic positivity also sends the message that if you can’t focus on the positive or find a way to be positive when you are facing adversity, you are doing something wrong. This then furthers people to internalize and avoid the emotions that are negative, which can create physical and mental health issues. It allows us to avoid and sidestep situations that feel uncomfortable. Avoidance of uncomfortable feelings and situations can lead to us avoiding all things uncomfortable, leading us to cope with drugs, alcohol, and other destructive behavior. Overall, toxic positivity stunts our emotional growth. When we experience pain, something challenging, or something uncomfortable, it can lead to growth and deeper insight. Having a balanced focus of both the up and the down, as well as validating your emotions is important for self-growth, feelings of connection, and overall satisfaction throughout each part of your life. 

Toxic positivity looks like: 

  1. Hiding or masking your feelings
  2. “Just getting on with it” by dismissing emotions
  3. Feeling guilty for your true feelings
  4. Minimizing others’ feelings or emotions with the silver lining 
  5. Stating “it could be worse” instead of validating the emotional experience
  6. Shaming others for expressing their true negative feelings when they are not hurting themselves or others or
  7. Brushing off things that bother you with statements like: “It is what it is.”

Brené Brown has a video about empathy versus sympathy that I feel also depicts what toxic positivity can do to us and our relationships: 

Our lives will always have stressors and things that bring us joy, happiness, or satisfaction, all at the same time. When we are able to find a balance, we can learn to embrace and, more importantly, tolerate the spectrum of emotions. This comes with reflection and consistent work to continue to tolerate these more uncomfortable emotions that come with the ups and downs of life. Each person reading this will have individual experiences and perspectives on every part of life they have, and that is what is so amazing about each person. We are all unique! What is important is we create space to validate, work together, and sit with each other through all the ups and downs. 


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