In a world that values happiness and success above all else, toxic positivity has increasingly become a widespread issue. The term – Toxic Positivity – has been trending on social media among counselors, psychologists, and coaches, leading people to question their approach towards being positive.
Toxic Positivity refers to the idea that one should always maintain a positive mindset no matter the circumstances. This approach to life suggests that negative emotions should be avoided or suppressed, and that positivity and optimism are the key to a happy and successful life. The issue may not be new, but recently it has been given this term.
We have all heard people say, “Look on the bright side,” “It could be a lot worse,” and “Trust in God and everything is going to be OK.” These dismissive platitudes in the face of suffering are examples of toxic positivity. Most probably, they reflect the good intentions of others, but these same sentences that seem encouraging can have a negative effect on individuals and actually cause harm to those who are going through suffering.
It is true that when people have a positive outlook or perspective on life, it brings benefits to their mental health and well-being. But the problem is that people’s lives aren’t always full of positive elements. We go through pain, hurt, grief, and suffering, which produce painful emotions. Individuals and communities need to learn to deal with and process these painful emotions in order to heal and increase their well-being. Toxic positivity doesn’t deal with painful emotions that people might experience; it minimizes and denies them, as if telling the individual, “Those painful emotions that you are having are bad and they will make you worse if you acknowledge them.”
As Christians, we too can fall into the trap of toxic positivity. We might feel pressured to maintain a positive outlook on life, thinking this will reflect our faith and trust in God. This approach can lead to a lack of empathy and understanding towards others who are struggling, as well as failing to acknowledge the reality of difficult circumstances. This makes the person feel unheard and unsupported.
Additionally, Christians may also use toxic positivity to avoid addressing systemic issues and injustices. Instead of acknowledging and addressing the real-world problems that cause pain and suffering, some Christians may opt to focus solely on positivity and spiritual solutions.
Sometimes we Christians use toxic positivity as a spiritual bypass or shortcut to avoid dealing with difficult emotions or issues. Spiritual bypassing can involve using positive affirmations or prayers to suppress negative emotions or using religious beliefs to avoid taking action to address a problem.
In the Bible, we see a different approach to dealing with negative emotions and difficult circumstances. The Holy Spirit can help us acknowledge and process our emotions, seek comfort and support from God and others in our community, and find hope and strength in God’s promises.
The book of Psalms provides many powerful examples of processing both negative and positive emotions. As a collection of prayers and songs, it includes a wide range of emotions such as fear, anger, sorrow, and despair, as well as joy, gratitude, and praise.
Many of the Psalms are written in times of great distress, such as when the psalmist is being pursued by enemies (3:5-6), facing illness or death (6:1-10), or feeling abandoned by God (22:1). Rather than suppressing or denying these negative emotions, the psalmists bring them to God in prayer, pouring out their hearts and seeking comfort and refuge in God’s presence.
Psalm 13 is an excellent example of this approach: “How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, LORD my God.” The psalmist demonstrates that it is okay to feel and express negative emotions, and that we can bring those emotions to God in prayer, trusting that he will comfort and strengthen us in our distress along our life journey.
Another important aspect of dealing with difficult emotions in the Bible is seeking comfort and support from others in our community. The apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
Here, Paul acknowledges that we all experience affliction and suffering, and that God comforts us in our distress so that we can comfort others. This passage reminds us that we do not have to face our struggles alone, but we can seek comfort and support from our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is why, as Christlike believers, we need to create safe and loving communities where people can express and process their emotions no matter how painful.
There is indeed much value to being positive, as it has a direct effect on our relationships, our well-being, and life as a whole. And yet, we need to be careful how and when to use positivity – especially as followers of Jesus – with those around us.
Smyrna is an assistant professor of counseling at ABTS and instructor at Regent University. She specializes in marital and family relations as well as trauma counseling. In addition to teaching and counseling clients, she supervises mental health professionals in trauma counseling.