It Could Be Worse: The Negative Side of Positivity
Glossing over difficult emotions can do more harm than good to a friend in need. Instead, strive for authentic responses.
Not too long ago, I was scrolling through Facebook when I came across a friend's post. It was a plaintive plea for support.
"Feeling very down and pointless," wrote Sonya C., an artist and one-time gallery owner who has struggled off and on with depression.
"Count your blessings," replied one of her Facebook friends. It was accompanied by an illustration of two people sitting on opposite sides of a train that was traveling through the countryside. The person who was smiling was treated to a sunny view. The one who was glowering saw only darkness. "Every single day you make a choice," read the caption.
That friend's reply — the curtness of it, the utter tone-deafness, as I saw it — pained me. It's not that there isn't some truth to the idea that how we see the world is influenced by the stories we tell ourselves. This is something I learned in my twenties while in recovery from an eating disorder, that was reinforced in my graduate mental health studies and again years later, in my life-coach training classes.
Yes, a positive outlook is a good thing to have. But sometimes, there's a whole lot of ground that must be covered before we can go from feeling "down and pointless" to counting our blessings. And that road is not linear.
"Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset."
When we try to "help" other people circumvent the bad feelings and zoom straight to the good ones — by lobbing comments like "count your blessings" or "how you feel is a choice" or any other of a number of empty platitudes — we become guilty of something called toxic positivity.
"Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset," writes Kendra Cherry on Verywellmind.com. "It rejects difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful, often falsely positive, façade," she explains.
While difficult emotions may be hard to deal with — for those having them and for those wanting to help with them — it's important not to gloss them over or attempt to minimize their sting with false or shallow positivity.
Why Toxic Positivity Is Harmful
Like a wound that is left untreated, toxic positivity can damage the human psyche. When we deny others (or ourselves) the right or the space to process painful emotions, we wind up generating more pain.
"Rather than being able to share authentic human emotions and gain unconditional support, people find their feelings dismissed, ignored or outright invalidated," writes Cherry.
This dismissal can lead to feelings of shame and guilt (I shouldn't feel bad; look at all the other stuff I have to be thankful for!) which can ultimately lead to a denial of negative feelings, which puts up a roadblock to emotional growth.
Lisa Harrison, a licensed professional counselor in Chattanooga, Tenn., calls this "bypassing."
"I'm all for positive vibes," she says, adding [toxic positivity] is a way around difficult emotions. "It's like painting a picture, but using only bright colors. The darker emotions bring information and richness to the soul. Without them, life has very little depth."
The Health Dangers of Ignoring Difficult Emotions
Too, says Harrison, our uncomfortable emotions are cues to the fact that something is wrong.
"Like the red light on the dashboard of your car, emotions are a signal to stop and check under the hood." When we ignore the warning signs — such as when we don't process the emotions — other things can start to go wrong. Or perhaps we act out inappropriately over something minor because we haven't processed something major.
"If we can't or don't make room for the darker emotions," Harrison says, "our emotional body can become toxic, and we can become physically ill."
"Sadness and processing grief are part of mourning and it's healthy to feel those things vs. diminishing their importance."
Sigmund Freud was an avid believer that repressed emotions played a role in physical illness. More recently, Jainish Patel and Prittesh Patel wrote in the International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research that poorly managed or regulated emotions lead to negative health and psychological consequences.
"Patients with difficulties in managing their emotions … are more likely to display a history of substance abuse, poor nutrition, and disordered eating, lack of exercise, abnormal sleep patterns, poor compliance with medical interventions and behaviors that are injurious to one self. …It is important to acknowledge that feelings and emotions are not responsible for health disorders and sicknesses. Rather it is the protracted reliance on self-defense against the expression of emotions and feelings that creates the tension required for the disease to thrive," they wrote (italics mine).
How to Recognize Toxic Positivity in Others
What does toxic positivity sound like? Here are a few examples:
"Recently I was feeling down in the dumps about my flagging career," says Carol U., from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "When I shared my feelings with a friend, her response was, 'You don't really need the money so don't sweat it. Just count your blessings.' I didn't feel heard, and I felt that my pain wasn't addressed at all. I got off the call feeling sad, angry, and very deeply alone."
C.C. in Chicago says, "My husband died from an aggressive cancer in 2020, and several people, including his own family, have said things to me like, 'He's in a much better place now, It's good that he's no longer suffering.' Those responses always elicit anger in me, even though I know they love me and mean well. But they're not telling me anything I don't already know. And it's like they're trying to explain why I shouldn't need to feel sad, which is, to me, a bit offensive."
"Sadness and processing grief are part of mourning, and it's healthy to feel those things vs. diminishing their importance," she continues. "I can't help feeling like those statements are a little patronizing, even though they're not meant to be. I'm starting to realize that my anger response is my body's way of reminding me that I have a right to feel my grief my own way."
"Toxic positivity denies people the authentic support they need to cope with what they are facing."
And Sonya, whose post originally got me thinking about toxic positivity, says that the Facebook friend's response I saw wasn't the first time she had encountered toxic positivity.
"When I was having anxiety attacks a few years ago, my mother-in-law told me that if I just gave my heart to Jesus everything would be better," she says. "After my partner of thirty years died, I was told by a Realtor friend that I needed to get out of our house as fast as possible, that I needed to pull myself together and appreciate what I had. It lacked any real compassion or empathy. It invalidated my grief, my pain, my suffering. It suggested that my pain made other people uncomfortable, which was vulgar, rude, and selfish on my part."
Other examples of toxic positivity include statements like, "Just stay optimistic," "Everything happens for a reason" and "Look on the bright side."
"Such statements are often well intentioned — people just don't know what else to say and don't know how to be empathetic," says Cherry. At best, this kind of encouragement can simply feel invalidating, but if we are unable to do as directed, we may begin to feel as if we are complicit in our own suffering, which can add to our already negative feelings.
In the end, says Cherry, "Toxic positivity denies people the authentic support that they need to cope with what they are facing."
How to Recognize Your Own Toxic Positivity
Let's face it: we've all been guilty of offering platitudes in the face of a friend or loved one's pain. We probably don't do it because we are evil or angry; we do it because we truly care about them and want them to feel better.
But the fact is, sometimes other people's pain makes us feel uncomfortable or helpless. In some cases, we simply don't have the emotional bandwidth to go through a difficult time with them. Hence, we want to believe that a simple reminder to "look on the bright side" or "have gratitude" or that "this too shall pass" will have the magical effect of lifting them out of their gloom without any more work needed on our part. But it probably won't.
Resist the urge to fix other people's problems or pain.
Here is how to keep your responses authentic:
Recognize when you're tempted to brush off a friend or loved one's distress. Are you feeling impatient with them? Helpless? Vulnerable, or feeling that their pain is too great and might consume you? Paying attention to your own feelings is important so that you can give the right kind of attention to others' feelings. Sometimes just acknowledging to yourself that you feel impatient or threatened by their pain will clear the way for your responses to come from a more authentic, healing place.
Listen to yourself. When you say things like, "Oh, it can't be that bad" or "I've been through that and you'll get over it" you are minimizing their feelings, which can make others feel unheard and unsupported. Better to say something like, "I've been through that, but what does it feel like to you?"
Resist the urge to try to fix other people's problems or pain. We can't do it, and that isn't what people need or want from us. Mostly, they just want to know that we've heard them. "I hear what you're saying," and "Tell me more about why you feel that way" can also be comforting, and show you are listening and interested.
Don't Poison Yourself
Wonder why you still feel awful about an event or interaction in your past, even though you've tried hard to have gratitude and focus on the positive? It's likely you are guilty of poisoning yourself with toxic positivity.
Just as we shouldn't seek to bypass another's pain, we shouldn't bypass our own. It doesn't help to tell ourselves to get over something, and then expect a true perspective shift. Working through our feelings takes time and attention, not platitudes and wishful thinking.
You may need to do one or more of the following:
Manage your expectations about how quickly or thoroughly you should "get over" the event or interaction.
Be realistic and honest about what you need to begin to feel better. Do you need to seek an apology from someone? Do you need to apologize? Do you need to simply sit with your uncomfortable feelings? Do you need to process your feelings with a friend or a therapist?
Be clear about how you hope to end up feeling. Sometimes we can work through our negative emotions about an event or interaction, but still feel a twinge of pain when we think about it. This is normal. What we want is for our emotions not to overwhelm us.
How to Get What You Need From Others
In need of support but not feeling supported? Harrison suggests that all we really need is a person or two in our lives who can hear us out without trying to explain things or fix us.
"We don't have to set everyone straight," she says. "But we might need to educate a spouse or a friend, if it's a pattern. Tell them what you need. Ask them to just listen."
And, she says, there's always therapy. "So many people don't know how to ask for what they need, so they go to therapy to get heard."
The takeaway? Emotions — the welcome ones and the difficult ones — enrich our lives and give us information about what we want and need. Listening to ourselves and to others without attempting to fix or gloss over the hard stuff makes for authenticity. And there is no better path to growth than through authenticity.
Say This, Not That
Finally, a few things to say and not to say:
"Tell me about it" instead of "You'll be fine!"
"That sounds painful" instead of "It could be worse."
"How can I help?" instead of "Don't worry, be happy!"
"I am so sorry that happened to you" instead of "Things happen for a reason."
"I'm listening" instead of "Here's how I handled the same situation…" or "You think THAT's bad…"