What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity is an unhealthy insistence on viewing life from a positive perspective, regardless of the circumstances or emotions a person is experiencing. Toxic positivity goes beyond optimism and “positive thinking”; it creates a façade of cheeriness and denies all negative emotions. It leads to a false projection of hopefulness and brightness.

Studies and life experience tell us that a positive attitude is beneficial mentally, physically, and emotionally, but a push to always “look on the bright side” is harmful. Toxic positivity intentionally overlooks the reality of bad situations and does not allow one’s real emotions to be processed in a healthy way. When emotions are buried, they become bigger, not smaller.

Toxic positivity can manifest in trite sayings like, “It could be worse,” “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Cheer up.” It can cause us to avoid sharing our pain with others or even feeling ashamed that we feel sad or angry to begin with. Toxic positivity refuses to deal with situations honestly and can make us minimize the pain of others.

Scripture teaches that not everything that happens is good. In Psalms especially, it also shows us that humans feel a wide range of emotions. Our Creator Himself has emotions. God knows love, joy, anger, compassion, and sadness (Jeremiah 31:3; Luke 10:21; Matthew 21:12; Exodus 33:19; John 11:35). God Himself does not subscribe to the idea that a continual, forced positivity is healthy or normal.

We see, too, in Scripture that God does not condemn the harder emotions like anger, sadness, or grief. These emotions are a natural part of the human experience, and, rightly handled, there is nothing sinful about them. God calls us to mourn for sin (Matthew 5:4), weep over disobedience (2 Corinthians 7:10), fear eternal separation from God (Matthew 10:28), and be angry at things like injustice (Isaiah 1:17). Rather than tamp down negative emotions, we are to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15, ESV).

It is essential that Christians take sin seriously and be rightly grieved by it (Matthew 9:47). There is no positive spin that can remove sins from us or anyone else. Repentance requires a heart broken by its own sinfulness (2 Corinthians 7:10). We should never let someone diminish our heartbreak over our sins.

The psalms are a good study in emotion and truth. Various psalmists recount injustices, difficult circumstances, or a hard past, and they express honest words of grief and need; then they move into words of praise for God and who He is (e.g., Psalms 51, 54, 55, 56). In contrast, toxic positivity seeks to circumvent the process, moving straight to “praise,” skipping the honest dealing with life’s tragedies. The problem is that “worship” based on a false optimism is itself going to be inauthentic (see John 4:24).

Toxic positivity denies the reality of one’s situation, embraces dishonesty, and suppresses the natural emotions that God Himself experiences and that He created us to experience as well. Our perspective, although hopeful, must be informed by the truth of the Bible and grounded in reality.

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