Stay positive and things will work out.” “You can manifest the happiness you need.” “Good vibes only.” “Think happy thoughts, crying won’t help.” “I’m sure it’s not as bad it seems.”
These are some statements that clients in therapy tell me they hear from family and friends who are trying to support them as they deal with a difficult situation or a mental health condition. It can be frustrating for clients to hear as they feel their concerns are being trivialised because these statements, while well intentioned, border on what has come to be known as false positivity.
Psychologist Susan David says in her book Emotional Agility, “Toxic positivity is forced, false positivity. It may sound innocuous on the surface but when you share something difficult with someone and they insist that you turn it into a positive sentiment, what they really are saying is, ‘My comfort is more important than your reality’.”
We are living in a time when #positivity seems to be trending. Social media is filled with posts that seem to perpetuate these ideas and dictate what we should and should not be feeling. If you have been at the receiving end of statements such as these, I can imagine how unseen, unheard and not understood you have felt. The problem with these statements is that they don’t allow for psychological safety where a wide range of emotions can be felt. There seems to be a lens of forced optimism. The truth, however, is that when one is dealing with difficult situations, it is okay to feel not okay.
Even when coming from a good place, statements that reek of false positivity are a hindrance to open, honest and supportive communication as the person hearing them tends to shut down.
A client of mine had lost his job and one of his friends said: “You need to remember that negativity is contagious and by staying upset, you are coming in your own way.” The client had lost his job the day before and was sharing how devastatingly sad and worried he felt since he had a family to care for. After this incident, the client felt so judged that he chose to not share what he was experiencing with anyone else.
Forced positivity is a way of shaming people for what they are feeling. It leads people to suppress or not fully share the impact of what they may be going through. It forces people to hide their true feelings.
There is a place for optimism and there are also moments when it’s hard to feel positivity. So learning how to approach life and situations with grounded optimism, which is realistic and supported by evidence, facts and experiences, is crucial. It is dangerous when we are optimistic across scenarios without paying attention to the context, the risks and the intensity of our emotions.
Dealing with toxic positivity requires us to allow ourselves to feel a wide range of emotions and not judge ourselves for it. It also means acknowledging that you can be excited about something and scared at the same time about how it will turn out—accepting the duality of emotion. Learning to use our own emotions as a compass allows us to be authentic with ourselves. We need to choose to be mindful about friends’ words and social media posts that impose toxic positivity. Being aware allows one to disengage and take some distance so that we can be kinder to ourselves. It is also important to surround ourselves with people who can be fully present for us, listen and offer compassion.
When you see a friend or family member struggling, choose to say, “I’m here, I hear how this is a difficult time for you and your family”. What we need in a difficult time are not platitudes, but those who see what we are feeling and understand us and can offer their non-judgmental supportive presence.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.