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  • Writer's pictureAutumn Gordon-Chow

'Good Vibes Only' - Toxic Positivity's Prettier Sister

Updated: Feb 26

I posted something on Facebook the other day that got me unfriended. I dared to challenge the notion that embracing a 'good vibes only' mindset is the sole path to inner peace. Unapologetically, I am also going to say that this mindset isn't just misguided—it's dangerous. Good vibes are cool; I dig them. What I don’t like is the relentless push to enforce an exclusive culture of 'good vibes' on everyone, regardless of circumstance. It’s called toxic positivity, and it isn't pretty. It's also not effective at improving our psyches or our peace.

'Good vibes only!

'Positivity only!'

'Every cloud has a silver lining'

'Don't worry be happy!'

'No negativity allowed.'

These idioms are cute and catchy. But they are also rigid AF. Words like 'only', 'every', 'don't, and 'no', lock us into narrow-minded thinking seriously stifling our freedom and limiting our potential. Cute as they are, these expressions are code for toxic positivity.

What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity is the attitude that we should maintain a relentlessly positive outlook on life, often to the exclusion or denial of negative emotions or experiences. It promotes the idea that people should always "look on the bright side" and "stay positive," regardless of the challenges or hardships they may be facing. While positivity can be uplifting and motivating, toxic positivity becomes harmful when it suppresses authentic emotions, invalidates genuine struggles, and perpetuates unrealistic expectations of constant happiness. Simply, toxic positivity is saying “Your negativity is not productive.” instead of, “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time wanna talk about it?”

What is the problem with toxic positivity?

For one, it invalidates genuine emotions by dismissing or trivializing feelings of sadness, anger, or frustration. It suggests these “unattractive” emotions should be avoided or suppressed. There is no room for unpleasant feelings in the 'good vibes only' mantra. So what happens when a couple trying to conceive experiences their third devastating miscarriage? Or when a lonely widow loses his dog, his only companion? Are you going to minimize their pain by encouraging them to look on the bright side? I sure as hell hope not. The truth is there are things in life to which there is no bright side. And even where there is, our only job is to recognize that the process of healing looks different for everyone. It is not helpful to lead individuals to feel ashamed or guilty for experiencing natural human emotions. So, my 'good vibes only' peeps, your relentless positivity push is probably hurting folks, whether you realize it or not.

What do you call disregard for the feelings and/or hardships of other people? Lack of empathy. Yup, the 'just be positive' mindset demonstrates a major lack of empathy. It says, “Even though you didn’t ask for it, here is my [not so great] advice.” I find a lot of unsolicited advice-givers also being pushy with their expectations for positivity. Maybe a  more acceptable approach here is to acknowledge that we really don’t have any business placing our own expectations for how to navigate life’s challenges onto anyone else. Period. 

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America says, “Sometimes we need to heed our fears and negative thoughts, and at all times we need to be alert to the world outside ourselves, even when that includes absorbing bad news and entertaining the views of “negative” people.” Being alert to the world outside of ourselves is fundamental to living with empathy and compassion. So if your intention for living by the 'good vibes only' mentality is to make the world a better place, you cannot do so by dismissing people’s less-than-happy experiences.

Toxic Positivity Impedes Personal Growth

Toxic positivity impedes personal growth and development by promoting a distorted view of resilience. Contrary to its messaging, true resilience involves acknowledging and navigating difficult emotions, learning from setbacks, and embracing the full spectrum of human experiences. By prioritizing superficial positivity over genuine emotional processing, toxic positivity stunts personal growth and prevents individuals from learning valuable lessons and developing effective coping mechanisms. In essence, it promotes stagnation rather than growth, inhibiting individuals from reaching their full potential. 

Gender Role in the 'Positivity only' Mindset

Society loves to slap labels on how men and women should feel, like some sort of emotional regulatory body. For men, it's all about bottling up vulnerability —things like sadness and fear. Traits like stoicism and emotional detachment? They're glorified as masculine ideals. Toxic positivity just adds fuel to this dumpster fire, reinforcing the gendered expectation that vulnerability equals weakness, especially for men who are already pressured to exude strength. On the other hand, women are expected to be eternal sunshine dispensers, even when the world is falling apart around them. This gendered dynamic can exacerbate feelings of shame and guilt when individuals, regardless of gender, are unable to meet these unrealistic emotional standards, hindering authentic emotional expression. And don't even get me started on the stereotypes it perpetuates and the emotional straitjacket it forces us into. 

More Productive Mindsets

Embracing alternative mindsets such as acceptance and authenticity can offer a more balanced and compassionate approach to navigating life's challenges. Instead of striving for constant positivity, acceptance encourages individuals to acknowledge and embrace their emotions, both positive and negative, without judgment. By accepting the full spectrum of human experiences, individuals can cultivate a deeper sense of self-awareness and resilience. Similarly, authenticity flips societal expectations the middle finger and says, "I'm doing me." It's about honoring your true feelings and values, not putting on a show to please the masses. By embracing authenticity, you're not just marching to the beat of your own drum; you're forming real connections with others who appreciate your vibe. The realest love we can give is embracing others when they're in the depths, not just when they're riding high.

Stay real, my friends. xo

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