Maybe this has happened to you: You tell someone you’re having a hard time. Maybe you’re grieving a death, or dealing with a tough breakup. Maybe you lost your job, or you just had a bad day. They respond with something like, “At least they died quickly,” or “It’s probably for the best,” or “Look on the bright side, be grateful for what you have!”
This is what’s known as toxic positivity.
“It was funny when you reached out because I feel like this is the season of toxic positivity. It comes up all the time in my sessions, so I am more than happy to chat about it,” said Julia Bonnheim, a Seattle-based psychotherapist. “Think about things that you might see embroidered on a throw pillow in an Airbnb house — you know, ‘Good Vibes Only,’ ‘Live Laugh Love,’ ‘Don’t Worry, Just Be Happy.’ And sometimes, ‘it’s not so bad,’ or ‘don’t think about that right now,’ ‘it’s not that big of a deal,’ ‘just be happy.'”
“Something that came up for me in a session this week: A client that I’m working with is trying to get pregnant and has had miscarriages,” Bonnheim continued. “There are a number of people who say, ‘Well, at least you can still get pregnant’ after she’s miscarried. I think it’s a good party line that anything that starts with ‘at least’ after somebody shared something that’s difficult for them, you can categorize as toxic positivity.”
Toxic positivity comes up a lot for grief expert, author, and founder of Grief.com, David Kessler.
“I think of it as when we are trying to pour pink paint over a horrible situation,” Kessler said. “The reality is that some things are hard, some things are challenging, and getting people to look on the bright side seems like it would be helpful, but the truth is it makes things worse.”
Bonnheim says people often respond this way because they don’t know what to say. They get anxious and nervous trying to figure out how to comfort you, so they end up shutting down your feelings so they can end the uncomfortable conversation sooner.
“It can make people feel really dismissed, it can make people feel not heard, it can make people feel insecure about the validity of their own feelings,” Bonnheim said. “There’s kind of this ‘womp, womp’ feeling, like, you missed me. Instead of hearing somebody, it’s writing them off and dismissing their pain. It can be really painful at worst and irritating at best.”
So what do you say to someone putting toxic positivity on you?
“You can say something like, ‘I love your good vibes but I’m really hurting right now,’ or ‘I really want to talk with you about how I’m feeling but I feel like I can’t be honest with you about where I am when you have to make everything happy,'” Bonnheim suggested. “Sometimes you can actually respond in a way that alleviates some of that collective anxiety around, ‘oh God, somebody is hurting and I don’t know what to do.’ Say something like, ‘I know you want to help make me feel better right now but what would really help me the most is to just listen, or for you to give me a hug, or for you to distract me’ — whatever it is.”
Kessler reminds us that we don’t have to fix other people’s problems. Our loved ones simply want their grief or hard day acknowledged.
“We want people to say ‘Yay!’ during our good times and say ‘That’s horrible!’ during our bad times because it makes us feel alive and seen and cared about,” he said.