Toxic Positivity: It’s ok to not be ok
A phrase I often tell my clients in the first few sessions is: “People don’t often come to therapy because they feel bad; they come to therapy because they feel bad about feeling bad.” In other words, if we could easily accept our initial negative emotional or physical response to something in our environment, I would be out of a job!
The media shouts to us about being positive, keeping a good attitude, and considering our own blessings and fortune in comparison to the struggle and pain of others seemingly much less fortunate. We’ve even folded it into our conversation with casual phrases:
“Try to think positively.”
“On the bright side…”
“It is what it is.”
“It could be worse.”
And maybe the most sneakily harmful one: “At least you/I don’t have…”
While superficially these comments may be generally well-meaning, they disregard the complexity of the human mind. The push to remain positive turns into a misunderstanding of the natural response to feel bad. This can result in someone feeling confused, disconnected from, or even ashamed of those initial negative feelings.
Our greatest tool when we feel a negative emotion is empathy. For ourselves or others, empathy, or the ability to accept and understand an emotional experience, will soften the edges of the feeling and lead to deeper understanding of ourselves and others. If we apply empathy rather than pushing to change the response to a positive one, we value ourselves and our complex experience. Instead of trying to redirect our own or someone else’s emotions we can instead say:
“Tell me more about it.”
“That must be really difficult.”
“I’m so sorry that’s happening to you.”
“I really care about how that makes you feel.”
“I see you and I’m here with you.”
These statements allow for more curiosity without redirection. By allowing that initial emotion to be expressed, we can understand it without judgment. Suggesting we switch to a positive attitude implies that the emotion is meant to be judged and not appreciated. If we judge our own feelings or the feelings of someone else, we make it harder to move out of that feeling. Yes, we want to live in contentment always, but that is not realistic. We are complex beings with cyclical and wildly connecting thoughts and feelings. It will serve us best to value that complexity before moving on to think about how we can feel better.