When Positivity Becomes Toxic

Faith Reyes

July 27, 2020

“I’m trying to be okay, but to be honest, I want to escape.”

I could tell that this was hard for the student to admit. After months of trying to hold it together, she finally broke down. As I was talking to her, I could see how hard it was for her to cope during these difficult times. 

Many on social media try to find a solution to the challenges and the hardships we are going through. One camp tries to find a one-size-fits-all solution, while another camp argues there can be no such thing.

From these arguments, a new term has sprung up—toxic positivity.

“Move on ka lang. Pray ka lang kay Lord.”

“Everything will be fine. Be happy.”

“Don’t be sad. Others are dealing with worse things.”

“Maybe you can deal with that by being productive. Baka need mo lang maging busy.”

You may have said or heard similar statements before. While people mostly mean well whenever they say these things, they actually pose dangers.

You may be wondering: Is being positive a bad thing? 

There is nothing wrong with being positive. People with a positive outlook in life are a blessing to the world. But toxic positivity is something else.

According to Dr. Gayani De Silva, a California-based psychiatrist, “Toxic positivity can be described as insincere positivity that can lead to harm, needless suffering, or misunderstanding.” For most people, toxic positivity is synonymous with statements such as “good vibes” or “be happy.” 

How can positivity be harmful or toxic? Why should we be mindful of it?

1. Toxic positivity avoids the problem and provides a shallow perspective of the hope we profess.

“Okay lang yan, everything will be fine”

“We should be joyful! Stop frowning.”

“Malalampasan mo din yan.”

When I was a young Christian, I remember hearing these phrases often to address a difficult patch in my life. I don’t doubt the good intentions of those who say it. However, these positive statements sometimes left me confused and wondering if I lacked faith. It came to a point when I stopped sharing my sentiments to other people for fear of being judged, just because I was experiencing fear and uncertainty. 

On the other hand, I also have my share of stories where I was guilty of flippantly saying the same things to someone who is suffering. Sometimes, we may resort to quoting Bible verses and carelessly using them so we won’t have to walk with people in their pain and suffering.

Our tongue holds the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21). Our use of words can either make or break someone. We may think this is just about speaking negatively about someone, but Christians are often accused of being too overly optimistic, especially during this pandemic.

There are online forums where people talk about how they were offended by Christians who come off as indifferent to their emotions by glossing over the problem with a verse or a quote.

Toxic positivity gives people a cheap solution to their problems. Sometimes, we think we are giving hope and optimism, but what we don’t realize is that saying nice things and giving feel-good solutions for people to stop talking about their problems does not point to Jesus Christ as the ultimate hope.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

2 Corinthians 4:16,17 (NIV)

The Bible acknowledges our present suffering and looks forward to the promise. It stems from a deep understanding that the Reason for our faith is true, willing, and able to meet us where we are. Our hope is not an abstract concept. It is found in Jesus Christ. He is someone who can empathize with our present sufferings because He experienced every aspect of being human—losing someone whom He loved dearly, being betrayed and frustrated, and being tired and weary (Hebrews 4:15,16).

Jesus wept (John 11:35). He is not intimidated by strong emotions. It’s amazing that even when He knows the future and the mysteries of this life, He ministers to us in our grief and weeps with us. 

2. Toxic positivity shuts down emotional conversations and shuts off the true source of healing.

“You should be grateful you are still alive”

“Ganun talaga ang buhay. Stop with all the drama”

“You’re too sensitive.”

In one of his Ted Talks, Magmoud Kedr shared his struggle with mental health and his journey of healing after multiple suicide attempts. He shared that throughout his struggle, he tried hard to be optimistic because he was always instructed to be positive and to look at the bright side. He adds that toxic positivity hurts people because it initially shuts down emotional conversation. People end up not seeking help because no one validates their emotions and experiences.

Toxic positivity can be a defense mechanism to avoid uncomfortable emotions and conversations. In our desire to stay away from negativity, we dismiss the experiences of others without acknowledging that emotions are part of being human. For us to properly help others, we have to learn how to empathize with them.

To listen well is not easy. That’s why to sincerely listen to a person’s heart is an act of love. The Bible instructs us that we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to be angry (James 1:19). It takes a lot of compassion and time for us to consistently do this well, and this can only be attainable as we depend on the leading of the Holy Spirit.

In the book of Psalms, we see the journey of psalmists when they experience fear, mourning, and anger, but at the same time, they realize that their ultimate comfort is found in God.

Where toxic positivity gives us band-aid solutions to our emotional wounds, God invites us to be transparent before Him, even when emotions are high and our hearts broken. We find our validation in Him first. This means that above seeking validation from people when it comes to our problems, we will head straight to God first, trusting that He’ll help us carry our emotional baggage. He might even help us by sending people who will carry our burdens with us.

The Bible calls us to encourage and build up one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11). This means we are called to journey with one another through the highs and lows of life, and this entails practicing self-awareness and being sensitive to other people’s feelings.

God designed the Church to be a community where truth is lovingly said and grace is abundant. (If you’re not yet part of a church community and you’re interested to join one, we’re here to help you get connected to one! Send us a message.)

When the going gets tough, we know that neither worry nor toxic positivity can truly help us. However, God invites us to know Him and to rest our hope in His character. He willingly walks with us through the messy parts so that we can experience a faith-filled life that is real, authentic, and sincere.




The Author

Faith Reyes

Faith Reyes is a campus missionary from ENC Pioneer, is married also to a missionary, has an adopted dog named Toffee and is a zero waste advocate.