What is toxic positivity? Why pretending to be happy can be harmful for your mental health

  • A clinical psychologist explains why you should handle unpleasant emotions head on
  • Ignoring negative emotions can cause loneliness and depression
Doris Wai |

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You don't have to hide it when you're feeling unhappy - it's ok not to be ok!

Whether we’re scrolling on Instagram or chatting with friends in real life, many of us feel pressure to come across as though we are always living our best lives, but sometimes covering your real feelings with fake happiness can backfire.

Dr Diego Busiol, a certified clinical psychologist, tells Young Post why being positive can go too far, and why we shouldn’t pretend that everything’s okay when it isn’t. Positive thinking is often touted as the key to success, but pretending to be perpetually happy leads to toxic positivity.

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“Toxic positivity is the need to always be happy at any cost, even in adversity. While this may seem like a nice thought, doing so gives us no room for unpleasant feelings like sadness, anger, and despair,” explains Busiol.

He says that toxic positivity manifests in various forms: When something bad has happened, do you remind yourself to be positive because everything happens for a reason, or because it could be worse? Do you try to distract yourself to get over it?

Busiol explains that ignoring unpleasant emotions will only create loneliness and disconnect us from our body, emotions, and sensations.

Ignoring unpleasant emotions will only hurt you more in the long run; it's much better to confront them and deal with them.

He emphasises that having these feelings is not a completely negative thing, and that he would be sceptical if someone experiencing an extremely stressful situation only puts on a big smile all the time.

“There are moments when we feel unpleasant emotions such as anxiety and disappointment, and it is perfectly normal. If these feelings are suppressed or denied, it can spiral into depression,” he says.

In order to stop holding back these feelings, we need to stop labelling some emotions as wrong, though it doesn’t help that modern society pushes us to always be productive and happy.

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He says, “We have been programmed to think negative emotions are a hindrance and can make us less productive.

“These emotions [anxiety or disappointment] are unpleasant, but that doesn’t make them negative.

Anxiety can signal what we are afraid of, but also what we yearn for, what makes our heart beat, and what our ambitions are. There is vitality in anger and reflection in sadness.”

Drawing from his experience with clients and findings from studies, Busiol shares that those who have forced positivity might actually fare worse in life. That’s because forced positive thinking can give the illusion that things will eventually work out on their own. The flip side is that if they don’t, the disappointment is even greater.

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“Some of my patients end up becoming numb, and they find themselves prisoners of this positive image that they must convey at all costs. They struggle to be authentic ... and make an incredible effort to appear cheerful with others. Then, when they are alone, they feel lost and exhausted,” he says.

Rather than telling yourself that everything’s going to be alright. Busiol suggests embracing these feelings. Avoiding fear only fuels it, and instead, we can express these emotions creatively by writing and painting.

“A lot of literature, art, and music stems from these unpleasant emotions. Expressing emotion through art is an incredible way to release those feelings, and open up your soul,” he advises.

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He also recommends talking to a trusted person or a professional about these feelings. Busiol says we often have the misconception that talking about it will be like opening a Pandora’s box - that unpleasant emotions will take control of our life if we talk about them.

“I have never seen anyone feel worse because they talked about their feelings,” he says.

Above all, Busiol stresses it is important to be honest with yourself. Unpleasant emotions are a part of us, and we should turn these feelings into an opportunity for self-discovery and growth.

And whenever you are thinking of rejecting or hiding certain emotions to present a cheerier facade, remind yourself that it’s perfectly okay - and actually better for you - to not always be okay.

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