Stylized text in deep teal background with white and glowing chartreuse text which reads: Toxic positivity is afraid of your real=life experiences, but genuine, healthy optimism lets you reinvigorate yourself to see a new path and still has space for you when things are tough.

Optimism vs Toxic Positivity

In early 2023, there was a post that circulated on LinkedIn that encouraged people to smile more, because smiling could change how someone feels. I’m all for smiling – I do it a lot. But where is the line between faking it until you make it and toxic positivity? This quick read on optimism versus toxic positivity gets to the crux of the issue in two minutes.

What’s the difference between optimism and toxic positivity? Both optimism and toxic positivity look at what is positive, and look for – or anticipate – the best possible outcome.

But they are not the same at all.


Optimism is the choice to look at where there is reason for hope.

True optimists remember that things can be hard, so they have perspective to know when things are good. They choose to look for good things they can pursue and build on. This is often inspiring and uplifting to others, particularly when the optimist is authentic.

Toxic positivity

Toxic positivity, however, is afraid of discomfort. Someone who embodies toxic positivity is typically very, very afraid of their own unprocessed experiences, or the “shadow self” as Carl Jung called it.

They avoid anything that might reflect back their own Shadow to them. The problem gets worse when they direct the toxic, fear-based “positivity” to others. They do this out of fear that others’ tough experiences will remind them of their own.

Let’s be clear

This is not coming from a place of judgement. Toxic positivity is very popular and marketable. And if you’re not paying attention, optimism and toxic positivity can look the same on the surface.

Toxic positivity may leave you feeling great on a good day.

But wait until you’re having a rough day, and toxic positivity will not have any space for you. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build resilience or choose to be optimistic, of course. Because resilience lets us take on more of life in a sustainable way.

But resilience is not the same thing as avoiding tough emotions.

Recognizing optimism

How will you recognize optimism, particularly in other leaders? Look for how authentic the person is and how you feel when you interact with them.

  • Do you feel genuinely inspired?
  • Do you have respect for them?
  • Do you see courage that lights up your own courage?

That’s optimism.

Toxic positivity is afraid of your real-life experiences. But genuine, healthy optimism lets you reinvigorate yourself to see a new path and still has space for you when things are tough.

Still not sure which way you naturally tend to lean? Here’s one super simple practice for checking in with yourself: when you ask someone how they are at the start of the conversation, are you thrown off and uncomfortable if they answer the question authentically?

It’s okay if you are – no one is perfect. But it’s a good check-in and starting point to ask yourself why getting an answer to a question you’ve asked is irksome.

Thanks for taking this time and space within yourself to reflect! Leadership is a growth journey and we all get there together.

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