Many people try to help friends and family when they face something unpleasant. It could be a job loss, a death, or just a daily crisis. While they intend to offer hope and promise, sometimes their words just add to the pain. This is what is called toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity is defined as the overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state that results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.
Examples of Toxic Positivity
There are examples of this behavior all around. Some easy examples are those who ignore, downplay or dismiss emotions after a traumatic event. Another sign of it is to pretend everything is good when it isn’t or shaming those for having negative emotions.
Toxic positivity also doesn’t acknowledge the real pain in a situation or minimizes that pain with cliches or opinion.
There are just times when positivity is not only unhelpful but is destructive. There is a standard rule that it is better to be harmless than helpful.
One example of toxic positivity is something people have said at the death of a child.
“God must have needed another angel.” This is a trite, unscriptural comment that devalues the pain these parents are feeling. Plus, God can create an angel if he needs one.
How to Do Things Differently
There are eight things we can do to offer support without getting trapped into toxic positivity. The basic underlying idea is to acknowledge the person’s pain. Let them be heard. Understand this is the end of their world at this moment.
- Acknowledge your feelings. Don’t try to be perfect for your friend. Admit you have a variety of feelings about all types of situations including the one your friend or family member is facing now. Showing your vulnerability will make them feel more normal.
- Respond with empathy and compassion. This is always a good response. Empathy is being able to share the feelings of another person. While you may not always be able to feel what they are feeling, you can always show compassion for their feelings. Notice the pain they are in and walk with them through it.
- Connect on a deeper level. We all are superficial most of the time and people in pain need authenticity. You don’t need to bare your soul, but allow them to see a part of you that shows you are deeper than a wading pool. Build a rapport with them that makes you relatable so they feel comfortable enough to share their pain with you.
- It’s difficult to see the rainbow when you’re in the middle of a storm. Positivity has its place and the middle of a despairing situation isn’t it. There could be a time later to rely on your hopes and experiences. They may need that then, but not now.
You need to be careful in judging the right time for the right thing to do. This requires paying attention to your friend or family member to see what it is they need at this moment.
- Aim for the next best level of emotion.
It is a tall leap from utter despair to joy. You can’t expect that from someone going through a tough time. Instead, think of you building a ladder with rungs for your friend to climb up to optimism. Your job is to point them to the next best emotion in the next rung of the ladder. Stepping into each next best emotion will have them climbing toward a hopeful attitude.
That means if they are in despair, aim for the simply being in grief. If they are in grief, aim for them to just be sad. This is how to get them on the ladder.
- Listen. Nothing can substitute for a listening ear. This may seem passive for you because you want to do something to make their pain go away. However, you need to think about the fact they need to feel this pain. Pain is what makes us human. It’s what gives us empathy. There are times when you shouldn’t do anything but just be there for them.
- Follow their direction. Let your friend or family member determine their path of emotion. If they head toward disappointment and frustration, you should allow them to feel that. Those who go toward optimism is a sign to you that it’s okay to be on that road with them.
- Be there. This is the number one thing you can do for someone you love when they are going through stuff. They will signal what they need. Sometimes, it’s just to be there for them.
There is a time when positivity will come into play, but it’s your responsibility to be wise in how you use it. Discernment is key in knowing how to help a friend. There are many ways you can help outside of bringing the silver lining. That is something everyone can be positive about.