Untangling Emotions: Toxic Positivity, Self-Care, & Shame

What is Toxic Positivity, and how does it apply to Self-Care and Shame?

Toxic positivity is the expectation, either by one’s self, others and/or culturally, that even though a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation is overwhelming and/or uncomfortable, they should only have a positive attitude.

Toxic positivity is a deeply embedded part of our culture, and it can come from external sources, such as from articles that are titled “Five Things You Must Do to Be Happy,” or from a friend responding to your pain with invalidating statements of “you should look on the bright side,” and this cultural toxic positivity can infiltrate into our mindset and affect our emotional and relational self-care.

And, of course, toxic positivity can trigger shame because we can’t cognitively change the unconscious reactions in our body, aka, our emotions.


Externally, toxic positivity can look like the family member who censures you for disclosing irritation instead of their listening to why you are frustrated. It can be phrases like, “choose happiness,” or “be grateful for what you have,” or “don’t think about it; stay positive,” or “positive vibes only,” or “power through.”

Toxic positivity can be your own feelings and thoughts that you shouldn’t focus on emotions of sadness, shame, depression, anger, anxiety, loneliness, or fear. Because negative emotions feel uncomfortable, they are seen as “bad,” and when we compare ourselves to others, shame rises up because we assume, often erroneously, that no one else feels those “negative” emotions, so we feel different (and not in a good way).

Positivity and happiness are the expectation, and other human emotional experiences are not only not welcome, they are denied, minimized, and overruled. This affects our emotional well-being, and can bring up feelings like it’s wrong when you have emotions rise up which aren’t “happy,” which can then be internalized in a broken core belief that you are lacking or weak because you don’t feel or react the way ‘everyone’ else does, and in the shame world, that translates unconsciously as you are unworthy of taking care of yourself in a beautiful way.

Why should this matter? Everyone wants to feel the pleasurable emotions, right?

It matters because it’s a setup.

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As human beings we have lots of emotions, all the time, they originate in the brain, and we then have a physiological response in the body, and it’s impossible as a human being to only feel certain ones, or to do away with the ones we don’t favor. So when we have an unconscious reaction in the body, in response to an external event, and our reaction doesn’t fit with the “happy” emotions, shame will rise up: “why can’t I just always be happy,” we may ask ourselves, “ something must be wrong with me,” etc. Often, people will look at others and think the others have it all together, and compare themselves to those others. Shame rises up when we feel like we are doing things wrong, or like we’re not doing things well enough, because we don’t think that we “have it all together.”

Some may argue that positivity keeps us striving to be our best, but when we struggle with a self-love deficit, as trauma survivors often do, such incessant positivity becomes toxic because shame isn’t a sustainable motivator and because minimizing our true emotions is never an authentic place. Instead, self-compassion, gentleness, and taking care of ourselves is.


Signs we may be assimilating toxic positivity can include:

Invalidation of negative emotions: All emotions have value: they are signals, communication that start in the brain, then go into the body and back to brain, where we cognitively label them, and are an indicator to how we feel at any given time. When we bypass, blunt, stuff, deny, or numb the negative ones, the energy of the negative emotions can’t release. I love Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor’s work on the “90 second emotions rule,” as it explains the science behind that “rule.” When people invalidate our negative emotions, it can lead us to believe that our emotions are “wrong,” and because we can’t just ‘change how we feel’ in the body, that can make us bypass and stuff down the energy of our own emotions.

Overemphasizing positive thinking: Pressuring ourselves and others to always focus on the positive causes us to ignore the complexity of emotions. The cultural emphasis on positivity can lead us to ignore our own emotions and delay or prevent our healing.

Avoidance of negative topics: Unwillingness to discuss or address challenges, or insisting that we, or others, maintain a façade of positivity is the mask people wear when disconnected from emotions! Behaving as if there is nothing “negative” in the world or, at the very least, not permitting others to talk about anything viewed as “negative,” can cause emotional isolation and more pain.

Minimization of struggles: Downplaying or minimizing real difficulties and challenges instead of acknowledging and addressing them, along with downplaying or minimizing the emotional responses in the body disconnects us from emotions. Having our emotions or experiences minimized can cause us to doubt ourselves and can also lead to social isolation, and of course…more shame.

Forced positivity: Encouraging individuals to suppress or deny their true feelings in favor of a cheerful exterior teaches us to suppress our emotions. The whole “look on the bright side” attitude that we are culturally encouraged to favor does this. Then again, if we don’t look on this “bright side” and we instead sit in the emotions that maybe aren’t pretty, we are told (or it is implied) that we are doing things “wrong,” that we are not doing things well enough, not trying hard enough, or that we are in “victim” mentality. (A question I ask clients a lot is, what if it’s not “victim” thoughts or behaviors, but grief?) Insisting that we — or others — be “positive” no matter what has happened or is happening in our lives disconnects us from our own emotions and makes us feel more inadequate.

Blame for negativity: Projecting blame onto individuals for their “negative” emotions (like anger, grief, frustration, loneliness, etc.) when we can’t control emotions in the body is basically an implication that individuals are responsible for their own unhappiness (anger, grief, etc.) and are doing something wrong if they are feeling that way. Toxic positivity adds blame and shame to someone’s emotional disconnect by attempting to force them to “control” or suppress any of their less than positive emotions. This is Survivor Shaming!


Lack of compassion: Not being able to be with our own or with someone’s else’s struggles and pain, while offering only minimizing “positive” solutions without understanding the context is like slapping a Band-Aid over the top of the serious wound: it is not accessing our own authenticity or being nurturing (to ourselves or to others). People can be uncomfortable with their own pain as well as with another person’s, but toxic positivity, instead of encouraging human connection through understanding struggles and difficulties, exacerbates pain though a lack of compassion.

Comparison and judgment: Comparing someone’s journey to that of others by either insinuating or by saying outright things like, “oh, but so-and-so had THIS happen, that’s so much worse,” or “you are lucky that’s all that happened to you,” is telling another person that, in essence, they shouldn’t feel bad because others have it worse. These kind of statements, where the comparison is loaded with (explicit or implicit) judgment, invalidate someone’s feelings and their perceptions of their own experiences.

Glossing over or dismissing realistic concerns: Not allowing valid concerns that have emotions attached to be discussed or felt, usually along with the overriding “everything will be fine” without addressing what is actually going on, is gaslighting (coined from a 1938 play-turned-film). Gaslighting is psychological manipulation, and it can cause people to question their own thoughts, memories, and/or perception of reality. Glossing over or dismissing realistic concerns, our own and others’, can lead to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, and sometimes to mental health issues. Gaslighting, by any name, is always abusive.

Pressure to just get over it: Wanting people to quickly “move on” from challenges without allowing them the necessary time to process and heal, and especially to grieve a situation, is a common form of toxic positivity. For a lot of people, other people’s pain is uncomfortable (and shame rises up), so the insistence on just getting over it becomes a shaming tactic, as if someone isn’t looking at at their own life experience through the “correct” lens. Because we need to feel our emotions, hash out the challenges or experiences, and come to a place of understanding for ourselves, any pressure to “move on,” invalidates our experiences and emotions.

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So what about self-care? In the culture of toxic positivity, proposed self-care activities are often somewhat superficial: taking a bubble bath, lighting candles, reciting positive affirmations. Self-care can include these things, but it is also functional, relational, physical, emotional and internal. Sometimes, taking the time for self-care looks selfish and unnecessary, because even if you are experiencing burnout, you are “supposed” to be looking for the “positive” in your situation. When trauma survivors can’t find the “positive” in their current or past experiences and are struggling to keep emotions contained or suppressed, survivors will once again turn everything inward and keep pushing through to try to be “happy,” invalidating themselves and experiencing toxic shame at not being able to achieve happiness no matter how trying the circumstances.

The key to emotional self-care is self-compassion, gentleness, reassessment and curiosity about why we are feeling the way we are, reminding ourselves that it’s okay to not be okay, setting attainable plans/goals and reorganizing expectations when we need to. Self-care is sitting in all our emotions and not trying to change them, not trying to “force” our emotions to be “positive.” Self-care is, for example, waiting to respond to an invitation to see if it’s really something you want to do. Setting boundaries. Getting rest when we are tired. Listen to your somatic clues in terms of your self-care: your body will tell you — through your emotions — what is right for you at that point in time. Remember, too, it is possible to hold two contradictory emotions simultaneously, and both are completely acceptable. We do ourselves a disservice when we don’t allow ourselves to feel all our emotions.

Take care of yourself by learning how to feel your feels: emotions are messengers from the body to the brain, and all emotions are valid and worth your loving kindness.

Hoping you are taking good care of all your parts today, especially those with toxic shame. You deserve healing and nurturing.