Look on the bright side!
All of these are encouraging phrases said to us when life tosses us a challenge.
What happens, however, when positive vibes become toxic?
It’s enticing to tell a friend who is feeling down to cheer up, buttercup, it’ll get better! Sometimes, though, things don’t always get better right away—or at all. 2020 is the perfect example with record numbers of unemployment and a deadly pandemic.
We will all wake up tomorrow and COVID-19 will still be here.
Comforting a loved one is a natural reaction. We want them to be happy and stop feeling those negative emotions. As understandable as this feeling is, it can easily seep into the realm of toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is “an insincere positivity that leads to harm, needless suffering, or misunderstanding,” according to psychiatrist Gayani DeSilva in Health magazine.
But wait, how can having a positive mindset be bad?
Projecting positivity onto others can be harmful for many reasons! It gives the impression that we should avoid negative emotions and that there’s something inherently wrong with natural emotions. We’re invalidating the emotional response others have to their current circumstances. And while chronic pessimism isn’t good for us either, chronic positivity can take it’s own toll. It shuts out emotions we need to work and process through.
So, what can toxic positivity look like?
Concealing how we feel.
Dismissing emotions that are unpleasant.
Telling others to “get over it.”
Feeling guilty for your negative emotions or being made to feel shame for such feelings.
Downplaying the negative feelings or experiences of others with memes, quotes, or passages for “positive vibes.”
Being told how much worse others have it; this invalidates the emotions of others.
Giving others a hard time for their emotions or circumstances.
The thing is, we need those so-called negative emotions. Repressing how we feel can literally make us sick. We internalize anger, guilt, shame, or pain, which causes an increase in inflammation of the body, which can lead to illness. Our emotions are part of our natural instincts. Our feelings are our gut reactions. If we lose our job, our sense of security is threatened, which causes fear. By now, over a quarter million individuals have died from coronavirus in America. Being anxious about the state of things is completely normal.
So, how do you support someone without the inevitable “It’ll be fine!” or “Cheer up!” of toxic positivity?
First, validate their feelings!
Secondly, empathize with their circumstances.
This can look like:
“I know this is difficult. However, you’ve faced challenges before and I believe in your ability to get to the other side of this.”
“I know there’s so much going wrong! Let’s mention one thing going right.”
“Your energy is welcome with me. I’m here for you.”
“If I were in this situation, I might react the same way.”
There’s nothing wrong with optimism. It’s a beautiful concept that has gotten me through some dark circumstances. However, what never helped was friends and family and their “positive vibes only” attitudes. There’s a definitive difference between encouraging a little optimism and shaming others for negative emotions. Things are hard right now. There’s no negating that. Let’s come together and show a little love.