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When Being Positive Can Be Harmful: Common Missteps That Lead To Further Suffering

A reminder of what could be worse during a time of crisis is a surefire way to minimize feelings and invalidate someone. In friendships, relationships, and within families, looking on the sunny side of things can actually be a dark cloud, depending on the circumstances. When you think about what feels safe to you during a difficult time, ask yourself whether it is when someone negates feelings through a positive mindset. At one point, you may have provided a positive outlook for comfort too. It’s okay that it happened, and there are ways to show up for people and yourself without using toxic positivity.

According to Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, a clinical psychologist, “Toxic positivity is the assumption, either by [yourself] or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset or ‘positive vibes.’”

Toxic positivity is an easy method to implement because some of the phrases you hear or have said are ingrained as societal norms. But it’s not helpful toward yourself or others when toxic positivity is perpetuated.

Engaging in toxic positivity, can actually lead people to feeling more alone, and can increase suffering, especially for those who struggle with depression, anxiety, grief, and low self-esteem. Realistic optimism is a characteristic of resilience that you can employ instead. This means that you aren’t negating the harm caused, and you are providing hopeful support.

Toxic positivity can sound like this:

I know you lost your job, but at least your partner still has a job.

I know you just got a divorce, but there are plenty of fish in the sea. Get back out there.

I’m sorry that your (parent, sibling, child) passed away, but think of all the good times that you shared with them.

It’s hard to break up with someone, but you are better off without them.

I can’t believe you lost your house. Just be glad you have someone to stay with right now.

You or someone you know may be going through something incredibly difficult, so you don’t have to make yourself feel better by negating or minimizing the pain. It’s uncomfortable to experience these events in life, and it’s important to show up for yourself. If you are using toxic positivity with yourself or others, this is a chance to change behavior. The more you become aware, the better you can get at taking appropriate action.

Instead, you can use phrases that are empathetic and supportive while practicing realistic optimism. It may sound like this:

I’m sorry that you lost your job. Is there something I can do that feels helpful right now?

I’m really sorry about your divorce. It seems like things are hard right now. Can I sit with you and listen to what is on your heart?

I’m so sorry about the loss of your loved one. Can I bring you a favorite meal? What day works best for you?

This breakup sounds tough. It seems like you are going through a lot. What feels most supportive to you right now?

I’m sorry about your house. Do you want help finding resources?

When you use empathy rather than toxic positivity, you may feel uncomfortable because it requires listening and loving in a supportive way, even when that person is you.

Avoid these common missteps toward yourself and others during a difficult time or grief:

Misstep 1: Offer Unsolicited Advice. Unless it is specifically asked of you, do not give advice to people who are seeking support. More often than not, it is a matter of being heard and seen rather than finding a solution.

Misstep 2: Make it about you. If you had someone pass away and are trying to provide comfort to someone else with the same experience, it is not helpful to overshadow them with what you did to get through it. If you are asked explicitly, you can share your experience. Otherwise, listening is best.

Misstep 3: Forget to listen. When you listen, you are offering to share space with a person. If you don’t feel like you can show up fully, say no to the invitation. You have permission to support someone or decline.

Misstep 4: Use your privilege. It is a privilege to distance yourself from trials and tribulations. You can still be proud of who you are but offering only positivity in situations shows less care when conversations are at their most tender.

Misstep 5: Minimize harm. This is the first part of toxic positivity. When you choose only the positive aspects of a situation, you are negating or minimizing all of the other pieces. You or someone else may not feel seen or heard. This is hurtful to friendships and relationships because it breaks trust.

Coming to a place of empathy and understanding for yourself and others can be a challenge. It’s easy to slip into habits of berating, minimizing, and negating facts so that you can stay in denial and not feel pain.

Eventually, emotions will come to the surface no matter if you actively acknowledge them or not. The trick is to lessen hurtful words toward yourself and others. Once you know better, you can do better. This is a process that takes time to unfold, but reducing toxic positivity is a step that you can take right now.

If you or someone is struggling, therapy can be helpful. A therapist offers you the space you need to feel how you feel, without judgment. Therapists provide validation, understanding and can help you find ways of managing that work best for you. If you are wondering whether therapy might be something you could benefit, and don’t know where to start, try here: Considering Therapy? Here’s What You Should Look For When Choosing A Therapist For You.

Written by: Randi Thackeray, MA
Clinically Reviewed and Edited by: Julie Reichenberger, MA, LPC, ACS, ACC

Denver Metro Counseling is a group of clinicians who provide therapeutic support for teens, adults, parents, and families. We provide supportive therapy for people struggling with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, ADHD, and more
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