When you’re upset, sometimes the last thing you want to hear is:
Don’t worry, be happy!
Just look at the bright side!
Let’s stay positive!
But whether you like those phrases or not, you hear them all the time, so you know how unhelpful – and annoying – they can be.
When people smile and tell you to stay happy no matter how painful or difficult your situation is, they’re engaging in toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is the attitude that everything is OK, all the time. It’s the notion that the cup is always half-full – even when, at the moment, you see it as half-empty. You may know family members or friends like this. They’re the ones who always brush off your pessimism and tell you to keep smiling and stay upbeat.
However, despite their best intentions, toxic positivity is not usually helpful. In fact, when you’re bombarded with toxic positivity, it can even be harmful.
Why It’s Not Good to Always be Positive
The Hakuna Matata approach to life can be dangerous for several reasons. It may work in animated movies like “The Lion King,” but in reality, it can cause problems.
First, it’s invalidating. When someone shares a painful experience, the best response is almost always empathy. Responding immediately with “Let’s just look at the silver lining!” ignores – and denies – their pain. People who engage in toxic positivity often try to shoo away your negative emotions because it makes them feel uncomfortable.
This issue is often a problem for parents of teens. For example, if your teenage daughter tells you she’s so depressed and explains everything in life is terrible, she’s really not looking for you to say “Your life is great! Let’s just look at all the good things you have going for you!” This her emotions and tells her she doesn’t have the right to feel sad.
It tells her “I can’t handle your sadness. So stop being sad.”
Parents do this when their kids are young, too. A parent might say “Stop crying,” or “Don’t be sad!” That’s invalidating, despite the best intentions. And it teaches children – from toddlerhood onwards – that they need to repress their genuine emotions to gain approval from others.
A more appropriate response would be “I can see you’re sad. I’m here for you.” Perhaps accompanied by a hug. And here’s a secret tip: this is the ideal reaction whenever anyone, at any age or stage in life, shares a painful experience with you.
Here are four simple examples of validating statements to use instead of toxically positive statements:
1. Instead of:
“Don’t worry, just stay positive!”
“I can see you’re really anxious about this”
2. Instead of:
“Come on, cheer up!”
“It looks like […] really upset you.”
3. Instead of:
“Let’s focus on the bright side!”
“I’m here for you through thick and thin.”
4. Instead of:
“It will all get better soon!”
“Your situation sounds really difficult.”
Please read our blog on six ways you can validate your teen without saying anything to learn more.
Of course, there’s a time and place to discuss the positives in life. But that should not be the immediate response to every vulnerable sharing of sad, angry, or upset emotion. Instead, listening deeply and responding with empathy is more appropriate. After you validate the emotion, then it might be time to discuss how best to cheer up the person doing the sharing.
Because sometimes, when you’re sad, upset, or having a bad day, you really don’t want to make lemonade. You just want someone to acknowledge that life gave you a pile of lemons.
Dangers of Toxic Positivity
Nowadays, toxic positivity is everywhere. Memes and hashtags on social media admonish anyone who reads them to bring good vibes only. Family members and friends routinely try to comfort each other in times of loss or grief by telling them to look at the silver lining and saying things like you know, others have it worse.
Our everyday greetings don’t help, either.
When was the last time you answered “Not doing so well, thank you” when asked “How are you?” by a neighbor on the street?
This brings us to our next point: toxic positivity can get internalized. When you hear, time and time again, that you should deny the negative and focus on the positive, it seeps into your thinking. If you’ve ever had a pessimistic thought but tried to tell yourself to “just forget about it,” that could toxic positivity talking. It’s toxic positivity when you tell yourself you’re not supposed to feel sad, lonely, anxious or angry and the result is that you feel guilty for feeling the way you feel.
How many times have you answered, “No worries, it’s all good!” or “I’m great, thanks!” when you’ve actually been angry or sad?
In reality, it’s normal to feel a range of emotions every day. It’s completely unrealistic to expect yourself to be in a perpetually positive state of mind. And when you punish yourself for feeling negative emotions, or aren’t honest with yourself when you do feel negative, it usually backfires.
Effects of Chronic Toxic Positivity
When you invalidate your own negative feelings by telling yourself just to stay positive, despite everything that’s going on, that’s toxic positivity. A child raised in an environment of toxic positivity – which is one example of an invalidating environment – can grow up to develop mental health issues. Many mental health professionals theorize that depression, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, codependency, bipolar disorder, and other behavioral issues are the result of chronic invalidation by a parent.
Parental invalidation can persist through adolescence. Children who are always told to focus on the good and repress their negative feelings may grow up to have difficulty with intimacy and vulnerability around others. They’ve been told, time and time again, not to trust their own emotions and instead cover them up with forced cheerfulness.
Alternatives to Toxic Positivity
Instead of toxic positivity, encourage the use of mindfulness – in yourself, in teens, and in others. In dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), the core skill of mindfulness teaches you that if you’re feeling sad or upset, you should acknowledge that you’re sad or upset – and not judge yourself for feeling that way. DBT doesn’t encourage dwelling on negative emotions, but it doesn’t encourage suppressing them, either. DBT believes emotions are like waves: instead of fighting the water, a DBT therapist will advise you to ride the wave.
At high-quality DBT mental health treatment centers, teens learn the core skill of mindfulness. When adolescents practice being honest with themselves and with others regarding their emotions, it helps them work through those emotions. This is called processing – and it’s a big part of mental health treatment. Learning to identify, process, and manage emotions can help reduce the symptoms of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, substance use, and other emotional or behavioral issues.