It’s OK to not be OK

A personal struggle with the effects of toxic positivity

Illustration | Irene Tang

Illustration | Irene Tang

Irene Tang

And remember, don’t be a Negative Nelly — be a Positive Penny!


My smiley preschool teacher reminded us as we sat criss-cross applesauce on the dark blue carpet in front of her. Immediately, the class broke out in applause, frowns immediately disappearing as everyone sat up straight, huge smiles stretching across their faces. I don’t remember exactly how many times I have heard this phrase, but it seems countless. The expectation of constantly being happy was reinforced by not only my teachers, but my friends and family too. 

Yet, by implying that we shouldn’t feel negative emotions, these so-called comforting and reassuring words can actually contribute to a harmful standard of needing to constantly be happy — or at least faking it. For instance, as caring as my friends and parents are, their frequent reassurances of “everything will be alright” forces me to plaster a smile on my face despite little change to my state of mind, sometimes even exacerbating it. 

We tend to shun people for not having smiles on their faces, describing them as unapproachable, having “bad” attitudes or even more insidious, having a “resting b—- face.” By doing this, we unintentionally invalidate or neglect their hardships instead of listening and helping them understand that it is normal to have feelings other than perpetual happiness. Although I’ve only recently learned that this concept has been labelled toxic positivity, looking back, I can confidently say that I’ve been subject to this throughout my life. 

Clinical psychologist Dr. Jaime Zuckerman defines the term “toxic positivity” as “the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset.” Forms of toxic positivity include phrases such as, “it could have been worse,” or “look for the silver linings.” 

As a victim of toxic positivity throughout my life, I’ve often felt alone, unable to find a way to share my real feelings. Choked by the fear of what the outcomes may be, when going through difficult times, I forced myself to be happy in front of my classmates and remind myself that everything will blow over soon and get better. And when a close friend eventually noticed my change in my personality, she listened to me as I told her about all the pressure I felt. Concerned, she responded with the words, “I mean it could be worse, so look on the bright side!” These futile but kind-hearted attempts to make me feel better did nothing to help my anxious thoughts of, “but what if things don’t get better?”

I confess, I am also guilty of reinforcing the idea of toxic positivity with my words in the past. However, I’ve grown due to my own experiences, and changed the way I communicate —  I feel more understanding and empathy for others when they speak up about their feelings.

Positivity on its own can be a great thing; it’s contagious and emits happy energy to others. However, there should be a limit to how much positivity we exude, especially when it comes to offering reassurance to people needing support. Take cake for example –– eating one or two slices is fulfilling and satisfying, yet eat five or six, and the satisfaction is replaced with sickness or disgust. 

I deal with this sugary cake by not repressing my emotions. I know that stuffing them down and hiding them is only going to make me feel worse internally. Whenever I feel down, I always have friends who listen and let me vent my feelings. Expressing my thoughts is always a huge relief. I’ve learned that it is important to never disregard your feelings, and ask others to help you focus on yourself without dealing out platitudes meant to minimize your feelings. 

There are many forms of caring, but we need to be mindful of how we express them and let people know we are here for them. The most helpful action — sitting and listening — may seem simple, but in reality, it is challenging for many. Let them talk to you about what they are feeling and instead of saying the same reassuring phrases over and over again, validate how they are feeling, and let them know that it’s OK to not be OK.