We like to be happy. That is among the most basic “duh” statements that can be said. By and large, given the entire array of alternative emotions “happy” would be the one that we would all choose. Happiness makes us smile and laugh and generally enjoy the state of just being, and research also shows that it makes us more productive at work. Shiny, happy people really do achieve more than their morose counterparts. There’s nothing wrong with that. 

And on days when contentment just doesn’t come naturally and things just seem bleak and dark, naturally positive well-meaning people like to glide in on a rainbow with magical healing advice: 

“Just look on the bright side!”  

“Just keep on smiling!”

“Things could always be worse!”

Yes, PollyAnna, things could always be worse, but they could also be better.

Phrases like this fall into the destructive category known as “Toxic Positivity.” And in most cases, people use them with the absolute best of intentions in an effort to bring cheer to an otherwise gloomy situation. I’m guilty of using these terms myself in the past until I was made aware of how counter-productive this generic cheerleading actually is. In my effort to make people feel better, I actually made them feel worse by adding GUILT to their already painful feeling salad of pain, hurt, and sadness. 

All feelings are valid. However you feel at any given time is the way that you are supposed to feel at that moment. Many of us were raised with the lesson that it is somehow wrong to be angry or upset or sad, and that the way to be happy is by simply willing it into being. You mad, bro? Just stop being mad. Not only is it not that easy; it’s not even possible.

And now during this weird time of uncertainty and turmoil, even the historical champions of cheer and ministers of merriment are having a hard time. Collectively, stuff is just plain hard right now, and it’s taking a toll on all of us. Here’s the thing, though: it is completely normal to feel the way that you feel at any given time, and the only way to get back to the positive emotions is to move THROUGH the negative ones, not to move OVER them. Denial, suppressed anger and sadness cause a ton of stress on the body and the internalization of much more severe versions of them like rage and clinical depression. In short, it’s good to feel bad as long as you process it effectively in mindful, healthy ways. 

When we offer syrupy saccharine-sweet thoughts of toxic positivity to our friends and coworkers, we are sending several unintended signals to them. The first one is that we don’t care. It seems counterintuitive that offering words of encouragement and joy shows a lack of care, but that’s exactly what happens because we have overridden their feelings. It also suggests that we haven’t listened to them and they don’t feel heard. And finally, we have disregarded the legitimacy of their grief. We have essentially sent the message that their thoughts are irrelevant, their pain is inappropriate, and we are better than they are because we are cheerful and they are not.
So should we just leave our friends and coworkers drowning in a pool of sorrow because we can’t effectively cheer them up with babbling words of bliss? Of course not. There are effective ways to help our tribe through a bad time, and they don’t follow the tradition of toxic positivity. Instead, they acknowledge the pain of the person and offer hope on the tail end. These statements also help the person to move through the discomfort in three V-ways: it gives them voice, vocabulary, and validation. 

  • Voice- the person has released the negative vibes into the universe which stops them from internalizing or being in denial of them.
  • Vocabulary- the person can be specific so that instead of saying “I feel like shit,” they can say “I feel frustrated with my children and I feel like my administration doesn’t support what I need.” 
  • Validation- the person has confirmation that they are not crazy, inferior, stupid, or wrong for being in a negative place.

So the next time you are faced with a situation where a person you encounter is in a state of hurt, instead of saying “stay positive and don’t think about it,” try saying “I’m listening, describe what you’re feeling.” Instead of “don’t worry, be happy” try “is there anything I can do? I am sensing you’re stressed.” Instead of “failure is not an option,” use “failure is a vital part of success and growth.” Instead of “everything happens for a reason,” try “how can I support you during this time?”

And instead of “it could be worse,” simply say “That sucks. I’m here.”

Also Check Out:

Throat Punching PollyAnna: Why Toxic Positivity is Worse than Negativity