Toxic positivity is not your friend

The incessant need to see the positive side of things is overwhelming… Michael Rennier, from the English edition of Aleteia, bets on bringing out the negative.

As a student of the Oral Roberts University At the turn of the millennium, I signed up for a class called “Signs and Wonders.” Once a week, the theology students gathered in a low-ceilinged auditorium where we sat briefly on musty chairs covered in yellow 1970s cloth.

Very soon we were told to get up, form small groups and prophesy over our classmates. We were encouraged to prophesy good things about each other. “Keep the positive.” “Speak health and wealth to existence.”

Being always happy and content is not real.

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Trying to make sense of this experience is what led me to a deep crisis of faith which lasted several years.

Do we simply need more faith?

That example is extreme, but there are numerous cases in which religion is involved in a appearance of positivity constant.

The idea is really quite simple: Spiritual people who have strong faith will be blessed. This means that when we experience negative developments in our lives, whether it be relationship problems, money problems, or illness, the best response is to put on a big smile, have more faith, and be empowered. To give voice to any of the negative things that happen in our lives is to admit a flawed spirituality.

Some of the most visible and successful spiritual movements are deeply intrigued by a self-help culture that emphasizes the good and denies the bad.

Many people caught in the clutches of that kind of theology end up in despair because they convince themselves that they have a flawed faith. Their personal lives do not match the image projected in the homilies they hear and the books they read in which holy people never have negative experiences.

My own crisis of faith was caused by feeling like I was on the outside looking in. Everyone else, perhaps in hindsight, was all just faking it, happily focused on health and wealth. They were having the time of their lives.

Positive to the extreme, their faith admitted no room for suffering or doubt. I stood there in that prophecy class surrounded by classmates and yet totally alone, a black sheep full of doubts and questions, trying to figure out how to get quietly to the door.


Can we be too positive?

My college experience has made me think for decades about how and why positivity can turn toxic. Is it possible to be too positive? Does the relentless need to look on the bright side crowd out valid feelings that should be named and addressed?

False positivity ruins our lives.


No one, after sharing how terrible their day has been, wants to hear just get out of it and be happy. No one wants the complexities of their situation to be reduced to a simple solution. Life is harder than that, and more confusing.

I fully admit that there is value in maintaining a positive outlook. It is always better to adapt, adjust and accept than to fall into a desperate paralysis. Of course, you can be toxically negative. However, the point is that there are times when we need a shoulder to cry onand it’s harmful to feel like you’re asserting yourself if you tell someone how you really feel.

“Forced to Smile”

That is why we often feel compelled to put on a smile and affirm that life is wonderful. The smile is a comfort for others so that we do not overwhelm them. But it is false. There is a time and place for serious conversations. Instead, too many fake smiles cause the real you to eventually disappear.

Too many fake smiles make the real you finally disappear.

I wonder if the fear of being real, instead of having happy and peaceful relationships, actually increases the distance between us. I can’t tell you how many times parishioners come to me for advice and, after telling me how angry they are with God, they immediately back down and apologize forcefully. They think they have sinned by expressing negative emotions. My answer is always the same: God is strong enough to handle your anger. In fact, he wants to know everything. He wants you to tell him everything about the whole negative mess with no frills.

Being real is necessary for a true relationship with God

The Psalms, if you think about it, are basically a long tirade about how, between being super happy and grateful, the psalmist is also a little bit angry and sad. A relationship with God is not meant to walk on eggshells. His willingness to stay with us while we blow off steam is precisely what ensures that stay close. Although, in his infinite mystery, he does not solve it, he brings something much better: his love.

When we shame others because they have expressed negative emotions, we deny them the opportunity to be loved. We’re validating the idea that they need to figure it out on their own, hang out, and then come back when they’re worthy of friendship. This attitude is no more a true friendship than a toxically positive spirituality can form a true relationship with God.

I’m not supporting the constant complaining. Rather, what I am saying is that we need to express negative feelings appropriately so that we can heal and move on. If we fall into denial, there is no chance to heal.

Maybe you’ve experienced so much stress and anxiety that you’re about to explode, and you’re holding on and holding on until, finally, you see your friend for coffee and everything falls apart. Your friend listens, nods, and hands you a cookie. The sun rises. Technically, the problem still exists and nothing has changed. And yet, everything has changed. You have made a genuine connection. Someone else is helping carry your load. You are no longer alone.


Toxic positivity is not your friend