Realism in a World of Toxic Positivity

alan White


Wellness Consultant


Toxic positivity is the idea that remaining positive and focusing only on the positive is how we should be living our lives. By focusing on the positive only we must therefore reject the negative and suppress any difficult emotions that we might feel. Toxic positivity has become popular during the COVID–19 pandemic.

“Stay positive”, “This too shall pass”, are just some of the phrases that we are hearing and using ourselves. (I’m not saying that we don’t need to remain positive, be grateful for all the good that is in our lives and look forward to a future where we can return to our normal lives. This sense of hope is vital to getting us through the current crises.) However if everything we hear all the time is positive, we feel the need to suppress difficult thoughts and emotions which we need to process. By suppressing these emotions, it will eventually have more severe long term implications for our wellbeing. Optimism at all costs denies us the opportunity to face our fears and give ourselves a better understanding of why these emotions are occurring.

If we allow ourselves to process these emotions and acknowledge any fears that we have we are much more likely to make more pragmatic decisions in our personal and professional lives. This in turn will give us a sense of achievement. When we overcome any challenge we boost our dopamine levels in the brain which helps our overall wellbeing.

Implications for our personal and professional lives.

Toxic positivity can not only be detrimental to our own personal wellbeing but can also have negative implications for the important relationships in our lives. Most of us have experienced serious emotional trauma in our lives at some point. When we are experiencing this our friends, family and our colleagues rally around us and try their best to support us. However most of us remember that feeling of not being understood when everyone around us is being positive all the time. The intentions are good, we tend to think that if we remain positive for the person suffering, they will eventually get over whatever they are experiencing.

However this doesn’t acknowledge the real problem and the real feeling and leaves the person who you are trying to support feeling frustrated and not listened to. This can set relationships back and build up resentments, even though the initial intentions were good. This is what’s happening at the moment across all areas of society at the moment, resulting in many of us feeling frustrated and afraid to talk about what’s really going on for us.

A further challenge is the way we are working at the moment. Whether working remotely or if you are back to your workplace, the dynamics have changed and we are more likely to miss subtle hints when we were working closely with our colleagues or chatting with friends and family. Wearing a face mask means we can’t pick up on the many non-verbal messages that our expressions convey and working remotely removes us from the important daily contact we had with others to the point where some people might feel isolated and alone. As a result many of us resort to positive pleasantries in conversations.

Positive Realism

Between the pessimist and the optimist we find the realist and there we also find balance. Being overly pessimistic can have negative implications for our own wellbeing and our relationships. Focusing only on negative things, situations and circumstances denies us the opportunity to appreciate the good in our lives. Being overly optimistic can also have negative implications for our wellbeing, although to a lesser degree than pessimism. Overly optimistic people suppress negative emotions which causes increased feelings of stress guilt and anxiety.

A Realist however can acknowledge the bad while also recognizing the good around them. I believe that we are not born pessimistic, optimistic or realistic. Our life experiences and our core beliefs shape how we perceive the world and from that we tend to become one of the three.

It’s easy to become pessimistic as we tend to see the negative in things before we see the positive naturally. This is our internal defense mechanism which is there to protect us in times of danger and therefore is always on the lookout for threat and negativity. Some of us naturally turn to optimism as we don’t like experiencing difficulty feelings and push them away with positivity.


Whichever is your more natural inclination we can teach ourselves to be more realistic by practicing a number of things such as:

  • Being grateful for the good in our lives.
  • Helping others.
  • Acknowledging and dealing with difficult emotions.
  • Fact checking, making sure that how we are seeing things is in fact how they really are.


Developing a balanced cognitive approach or outlook for our lives will improve not only our own personal wellbeing but will also allow us the be there for the most important people in our lives.

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