Picture this: your friend’s dog recently passed away. What do you say to console her? Do you try to cheer her up? You might tell her, “Everything happens for a reason.” A good approach, right? Wrong! Sometimes, things suck, and it’s okay to let them be that way.
The mindset that everything has to always be pleasant, and that there is a silver lining to every unfortunate situation is known as toxic positivity. It’s a way of responding to your own or someone else’s suffering that dismisses negative emotions instead of affirming them and could come from a place of discomfort. Though you may mean well, telling someone that “it’ll get better” after their grandmother dies or losing their source of income to pay rent is not only extremely unhelpful, but also comes across as unempathetic.
Toxic positivity often stems from not knowing the proper way to react when someone shares a difficult piece of information. Certainly, you do not want to exacerbate their fears and anxiety, but you also don’t want to shut them down—which is often the outcome of being toxically positive. If someone opens up to you about a difficult situation, and you immediately jump in with a “what doesn’t kill makes you stronger” sentiment, you’ve created a rift where the other person can no longer work through their anxiety with you. Additionally, if the person cannot immediately attach the positive outlook you suggest to their extremely unfortunate situation, they may feel like they are not healing correctly. Thus, you may leave your friend feeling more isolated, hindering their growth rather than helping them grow.
Sometimes, life is unfair, and bad things do, in fact, happen to good people. Sometimes you need a good cry, scream into a pillow or shout expletives from the roof of a parking garage. Instead of pacifying a grieving friend when they try to engage in these coping mechanisms, cry, scream or shout with them; in other words, work on being empathetic.
Empathy requires us to feel what someone else is feeling, which can be difficult. We may not have the lived experience to fully understand what someone is going through. It can make us feel helpless, not knowing exactly how to help our friend, even if we desperately want to. In these moments of helplessness, when your friend is inconsolable, and you just don’t know what to say, toxic positivity, understandably, starts to look really promising. But, the secret is that if you don’t know what to say, you don’t have to say anything. Sometimes the best form of empathy is providing a shoulder to cry on, a warm hug and silence. Your support, unmarred by trite words and affirmations, can be enough.
Next time your friend comes to you and tells you about some distressing situation, don’t try and cheer them up; instead, affirm their feelings. The phrase, “Wow, that sounds really tough, but you’re so brave in how you are handling this situation,” demonstrates that you have listened to your friend, and you support them in their healing process.
You don’t have to have the answer to make a situation better because sometimes you can’t. If your friend loses their grandmother, nothing you say will bring them back. When wounds are new, you don’t have to have some amazing revelation for them in these instances. All you need to do is listen to their feelings and aim to create a supportive environment where they can breathe and cope in whatever way they deem necessary.