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How to Cope When Positivity Turns Toxic

By Maile Timon
August 03, 2021

Have you ever vented to a friend or on social media when you're feeling down about a challenging situation only to be met with comments urging you to look on the bright side, or worse, admonishing you on your negativity? We all know that positivity is a powerful emotion that can inspire us to fight through difficult situations. But when "all positivity, all the time" is demanded of us, forcing us to tamp down our true feelings just to please others, it can turn harmful.

The belief that, regardless of how unfortunate or dire a situation, maintaining a positive mindset is paramount is called toxic positivity. It may seem harmless to cheerlead a recently laid-off co-worker to look on the bright side, or encourage a friend to be grateful for what they have instead of experiencing sadness, but this type of response can make them feel that they are flawed for experiencing the negative emotions.

"Pain, grief, and other so-called negative emotions are there for a reason; we evolved to have them," points out life coach and podcast host Vikki Louise. "Our emotions are indicators, and when we dismiss them and discredit people's experiences with them, we not only remove the ability for the body to process and learn, [but] we can leave individuals feeling isolated or diagnosing themselves as broken or needing to be fixed in some way."

Examples of Toxic Positivity

While the idea of toxic positivity isn't necessarily new, both the prevalence and awareness of it has increased in the wake of COVID-19. "The pandemic has definitely led to an increase in the push to be grateful for what you have amidst all this chaos," says Whitney Goodman, L.M.F.T., founder of The Collaborative Counseling Center in Miami. "We all just want to help, so we think using these platitudes will do that, but they just leave us all feeling more shame, guilt, and isolation."

If you're wondering what toxic positivity looks like, Goodman provides the following examples:

  • Someone is looking for support, validation, or compassion in conversation and is instead met with a platitude.
  • A person is shamed into feeling like they're not doing enough, they're not working hard enough, or that their difficult emotions are invalid.
  • We shame ourselves for not being happy enough or positive enough.
  • Someone who has legitimate concerns or questions is gaslighted into silence.

The Harm of a 'Positive Vibes Only' Attitude

Imagine someone being upset about losing a loved one, a job, or simply feeling sad and isolated. They reach out for support and, instead of empathy, are met with comments like "Stop complaining; it could be worse." Rather than feeling soothed and supported, you likely feel worse, and you may even experience guilt for feeling bad in the first place.

Imposing a sunny viewpoint on someone doesn't necessarily come from a bad place, says Nick Bognar, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Pasadena, CA. "Often people try to get their loved ones to look on the bright side because they themselves can't tolerate seeing the ones they love in pain," he says. "But the effect, however inadvertent, is that the loved one feels silenced or invalidated—it's deeply disrespectful."

How to Deal with Toxic Positivity

Even when unintentional or inadvertent, toxic positivity can still wound. Here are some Dos and Don'ts for how to respond when a friend—or yourself—is feeling down and needs to unload.

Do Validate. Whether you're trying to console yourself or comfort a friend, first, you need to validate the negative feelings. Make your friend feel heard and acknowledged. This doesn't mean that you need to agree with their reaction, but that you empathize with how they're feeling.

"People's healing and relief comes much faster when they are allowed space to hurt and heal," Bognar says. "Being present for others during those times is a way to be connected with them."

Don't be dismissive. Helping a friend put a breakup into perspective by pointing out all the qualities that make them lovable is supportive and helpful; trying to convince them that the end of their relationship isn't a big deal or that things could be worse may seem, not so much. Instead of diminishing their emotions, acknowledge that they're upset, and remind them that they have a right to their emotions. It's not required that you have all the answers or know how to fix the problem, only that you be respectful of their feelings.

"Listen and ask questions," advises Goodman. "If you don't know what to say or how to help, say that! It's okay to not know all the answers. Focus on making the other person feel heard, understood, and reinforce the idea that you're going to be there for them."

Do accept your own feelings. "Instead of backing away from negative emotions, accept them; acknowledge how you're feeling without rushing to change your emotional state," advises Deborah Gilman, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Pittsburgh. "Understand that your experience is not the same as someone else's and you have a right to your own experience. Everyone is entitled to his or her own feelings, and to shame someone or to feel shame because of differences in human experience only compounds the distress."

Don't go on a guilt trip. When you're dealing with your own emotions, don't guilt yourself for feeling sad or angry. Let yourself experience your feelings. There's no need to add judgment on top of the already unpleasant emotion. Also, understand that you're not weak or "less than" for having negative emotions or feeling down.

While there's definitely a time and a place for positivity, it should never come at the expense of invalidating someone else's feelings. We simply need to allow ourselves and others the space and autonomy to experience negative emotions. Sometimes, the best way to comfort a friend or loved one is to say nothing at all, and simply allow that person to cry and know they have a safe space to share their feelings.

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