I’m a highly anxious person, whose brain turns every minor issue into a full-blown catastrophe. Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to friends rolling their eyes at my latest concern-of-the-day. But when my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 58, loved ones treated it like another one of my “silly” problems. Instead of real support, I was bombarded with messages telling me to: “Think positive!”
When I tried to talk about my mom’s prognosis, my feelings were swept aside with statements like, “Everything will be OK!” and “Sending good vibes!” I know that no one really knows what to say at times like this, but I felt like I was being gaslit. The worse things in my life became, the more inane platitudes were sent my way. Friends were well-intentioned, but trying to suppress my pain with hyper-happy statements wasn’t helpful; it was toxic.
“When people use or demand positive emotions or optimism in a way that causes people to feel oppressed or disregarded, that’s toxic positivity,” Stephanie Preston, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Michigan explains. “It ranges from people actively trying to maintain their own spirits or sticking their heads in the sand, to forcefully preventing others from voicing uncomfortable concerns.” No matter how well meaning, such blind positivity can feel “repressive or invalidating to others,” Preston adds.
In a year with a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, and widespread social unrest, toxic positivity—where negative emotions like sadness, anxiety, worry, and disappointment are viewed as inherently wrong rather than just a normal part of the human experience—is rampant. “During the pandemic, we’re all struggling to deal with a situation we’ve never before experienced, and although we’re all going through it at the same time, not all of us are going through it the same way,” says Natalie Dattilo, Ph.D., Director of Psychology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
When Lynsey, 34, was laid off from her job of 10 years this summer, she found herself a target of toxic positivity. “I was terrified about the future, but my friends told me I should be grateful for my health, or be thankful that no one I loved had caught the virus.” She understood that even with her job loss she was still faring far better than some, but the lack of support from her friends impacted her mental health. “I got depressed and withdrew from people because I wasn’t able to talk to them without being sent ‘good vibes,’” Lynsey says. “I’m single, with no family support, and as much as I want my friends to be rooting for me, positive thoughts can’t pay my bills.”
Dattilo explains why blanket positivity can be invalidating to those experiencing hardship. “During times of adversity, we rely on whatever we can to cope. But ‘looking on the bright side’ in the face of tragedy or dire situations like illness, food insecurity, unemployment, or racial injustice is a privilege not all of us have,” she says. “Spreading messages of positivity denies their genuine sense of despair and hopelessness, and may only serve to alienate and isolate those who are struggling.”
Ariel, 37, was living in Rome when it became the coronavirus epicenter in the spring. At first, she felt like finding moments of joy in the experience was crucial to maintaining her sanity during the strict lockdown. But soon, the forced positivity caused her to feel burned out. Then, on September 24th, her dad died suddenly. “The situation was so nightmarish that I think it made people uncomfortable,” Ariel says. “Some messages were really sensitive and supportive, but many were inappropriately casual or full of forced positivity. I had one friend message me on Instagram offering to ‘cheer me up’ with cat memes. Many other people told me not to be sad, to be ‘strong,’ or said that my dad wouldn’t want me to be upset.”
In fact, she suspected her father would encourage the opposite. They had just had a conversation in July where they both laid out all of their negative feelings. “We just complained to each other for an hour or two,” Ariel says. “At the end of it, just before hanging up, he said, ‘You know, I feel a lot better now!’ We weren’t trying to force any positivity into the conversation. But just by listening to each other and understanding, we actually succeeded in feeling more positive.”
Clinical psychologist Jaime Zuckerman believes the pressure to be productive during the pandemic is another form of toxic positivity. “It’s important not to overload yourself with brand new tasks that you think will make you feel more positive,” she says. “During times of stress, our brains do not always have the mental ability to tackle something with a heavy learning curve. In fact, it can set us up for failure.” Instead of overwhelming yourself with learning a new skill Zuckerman suggests sticking with what you know. She says, “If you love doing yoga, try a different type of yoga. If you love reading, pick a different genre. Doing things to make you feel better protects you from setting, and ultimately not meeting, unrealistic expectations.”
Research has shown that accepting negative emotions, rather than dismissing them, may be more beneficial for a person’s mental health in the long run. As Zuckerman says, “Feel your feelings. Sit with them. Do not avoid them. Avoiding discomfort only prolongs its existence.” One 2018 study tested the link between emotional acceptance and psychological health and found people who regularly avoid acknowledging challenging emotions can end up feeling worse.
So, instead of spreading toxic positivity, we should try to spread validation and hope. Most of the time, those well-worn optimistic sayings come from a good place. I know my friends couldn’t find the words when my mum was dying; the situation was just too grim. But by speaking in clichés instead of taking the time to listen, they made me feel my pain was abnormal or wrong. As a result I spent the last few months of her life feeling utterly isolated.
People contain a full spectrum of emotions, and the sooner we acknowledge that all feelings are valid, not just the happy ones, the better. The simple truth is we can’t heal grief with cat memes or fix heartbreak with “Good vibes!” Instead of trying to be positive or diffusing other people’s emotions, we should listen and reserve judgment. Because sometimes the most powerful thing you can say when a friend shares something painful is, “Wow, that sucks. I’m here for you.”
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