How To Exit Social Media’s ‘Forced Optimism’ Trap—By A Psychologist
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How To Exit Social Media’s ‘Forced Optimism’ Trap—By A Psychologist

Here’s how to break through the artificial facade of toxic positivity on social media.


Many of us spend almost every waking moment online. We share the mundane, exciting and challenging parts of our lives with others through our preferred social media apps and learn about others’ on our feeds. However, personal anecdotes and struggles shared online are often buried under layers of forced optimism.

Promoting happiness and a positive mindset to an excess, irrespective of the situation, is known as toxic positivity. Being vehemently optimistic even in the face of adversities can create a toxic environment built on an avoidance strategy.

Creating an online persona that promotes boundless positivity hampers authentic relationships with others and one’s own emotional experiences. Those who constantly post or view statements like “look on the bright side” or “happiness is a choice” on social media may find themselves trapped in a loop of toxic positivity where they are unable to allow themselves to feel difficult emotions.

Presenting a facade of happiness and positivity at all times can feel like a constant battle that leaves us worse for the wear. Which brings us to:

How Toxic Positivity Impacts Mental Health

Experiencing toxic positivity on social media can affect you in profound ways. A 2019 study published in the International Journal of Psychology found that suppressing your emotions lowers life satisfaction and negatively impacts well-being. Consistently avoiding dealing with your true emotions can damage your mental health significantly.

A 2021 study assessed the impact of suppressing emotions and being inauthentic on adolescents, one of the dominant age groups currently using social media. Adolescents who suppressed their emotions in friendships were more prone to anxiety and depression due to feeling inauthentic and perceiving themselves negatively.

Toxic positivity can also hinder genuine communication and connection in friendships you make online, as you might feel pressured to only express positive emotions and hide negative feelings.

The “good vibes only” mindset can create a sense of guilt and shame for not being more optimistic in the face of distressing experiences. Instead of seeking support, you may allow negative emotions to build up within you, which can leave you feeling isolated and powerless.

Denying negative emotions with blanket positive statements can invalidate your experiences, create pressure to conform to the toxic positivity mindset and ultimately distance you from social support.

Fortunately, people are slowly waking up to the detrimental effects of suppressing emotions to portray a desirable, picture-perfect life. Recent trends on social media are focusing on revealing our true realities and putting our genuine emotions on display.

‘Detoxifying’ Your Social Media

The effects of toxic positivity, while pervasive, can be minimized with conscious effort. “Research has revealed a clear need for the exchange of more authentic experiences and the use of more affirmative language,” says Margo Lecompte-Van Poucke, a researcher at Macquarie University, highlighting the importance of escaping the “toxic positivity loop.”

Here are four ways to shield yourself from inauthentic positivity online:

  1. Acknowledge and experience your emotions. Acknowledging your emotions, whether positive or negative, can be the starting point to a journey of self-acceptance and, ultimately, authentic emotional expression. Dealing with negative emotions can cause discomfort but avoiding them only exacerbates our distress. Consider sitting with your emotions and writing them down to reduce distress and improve well-being.
  2. Embrace complex emotions. Despite what social media tells you, stressful situations are accompanied by a myriad of emotions. Your gratitude for the positives in life can co-exist with negative emotions of helplessness, frustration, anger or sadness. Remember that it is okay to not be okay and be kinder to yourself while struggling.
  3. Recognize toxic positivity. Increasing your awareness of toxically positive statements can protect you from their effects. Common “positive” statements you might come across on social media include “just stay positive,” “things happen for a reason” and “there’s always a silver lining.” Being aware of the toxicity can help you curate your feed differently or take a break from social media when needed.
  4. Seek social support. Difficult times can drive us to seek support from a variety of sources. Talking to trusted friends and family members can be the first line of defense against distressing feelings. Additionally, strangers on the internet can also provide a new perspective and validate your emotions. However, it is crucial to identify well-intentioned individuals. Finding authentic, supportive communities online can provide support from peers, strategies to cope with challenges and promote social connectedness.

It is imperative to recognize the toxicity lurking behind overly positive mindsets and statements. By accepting our emotions, practicing self-compassion and being cautious of social media influences, we can move toward genuine emotional expression and fulfilling connections online.

If toxic positivity on social media has you questioning your level of authenticity in relationships, take this test: Authenticity In Relationships Scale