What is it?
Toxic positivity is a term used to describe those comments that are usually well meaning but can all too quickly roll off the tongue without thought or conscious consideration.
The kind of thing you might say in a bid to be pleasant such as ‘it could be worse’ when trying to console a friend who’s having a bad mental health day. These comments can potentially become more damaging than stating the obvious. When someone complains about their situation it’s usually in appeal to be acknowledged.
I’ll refer to myself here a minute to give an example.
I have a chronic illness, and I’m currently mid way through a high risk pregnancy, so when I speak out on such topics, it’s usually a request for understanding and acknowledgement.
I know my situation could be worse, but I also need to feel able to talk about it’s disadvantages sometimes. So to say to me whilst I’m immobile and can’t leave the house or walk unaided
‘At least it’s not forever’ or
‘We’re in lockdown anyway so we’re all stuck inside’ isn’t helpful or positive:
1) Because it’s comparing my situation to someone else’s when each person has their own valid struggles. They might not seem relevant to you, but are very relevant to me or I wouldn’t feel the need to mention them.
2) Because it invalidates my current situation ergo causing me to clam up, feel like a burden and potentially prevent me from seeking the support that I need to get through a traumatic time.
Let’s put it a different way.
A permanently disabled person is unable to walk and has been told they’ll never walk again, would you say to them ‘Hey, at least you still have legs’ or ‘at least you’re not an amputee’ probably not, because it’s insensitive and again invalidates the struggle of the individual.
When stuck at home during a pandemic and suffering from loneliness or isolation, saying ‘Look on the bright side, at least you don’t have covid’ to your friend who has drummed up the courage to reach out and express their loneliness, is indeed toxic.
I think us Brits are renowned for and probably (don’t quote me on this) invented these toxic phrases in an attempt to ‘always look on the bright side of life’
The whole keep calm and carry on mantra is quintessential among us as a way to brush our troubles under the proverbial rug.
But as a direct result many of us play down our trauma whilst trying to remain positive through hard times. Perhaps as an automatic consequence of being afraid to speak out about our experiences, in fear of being perceived as negative or a burden to those around us.
Nobody wants to be the Negative Nancy on the group chat, nobody!
If picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off was all that was needed to regain a positive mindset, we wouldn’t be living through a very real mental health epidemic.
So what should we do when we can’t help someone but want to let them know it is okay to not be ok?
Try and refrain from comparison, everybody knows their situation could be worse. We know we’re not unique in our suffering, but that doesn’t make it less real or all consuming. Instead of saying things like Other people have it worse try saying something along the lines of You are not alone and I’m here to listen.
In replacement of Just be positive say I’m here to support you through all of your emotions, not only the positive ones.
Try and rephrase Look on the bright side with I’m sorry this is a really shit time for you right now, is there anything I can do to help?
Applying conditions after telling someone to reach out is a contradiction.
‘Reach Out’ is another phrase thrown around with good intentions. Reach out and talk to someone if you’re feeling depressed. Don’t suffer in silence and so on. Telling someone to reach out in itself isn’t problematic, but dismissing their troubles or retracting your proffered support once they do, is.
‘Reach out’ and ‘I’m here for you’ are great if you genuinely mean them. If you want someone to reach out so that you can show them your support, back that up by listening and acknowledging their struggle once they do. Good intentions are merely just intentions if we retract every time someone responds to them.
Nobody has all the answers, but someone who is struggling isn’t asking you to fix them. They just want you to listen, and seek to understand.
A lot of the time, for me anyway, just knowing someone believes and acknowledges my struggle is enough to remind me that there is hope, and when there feels like there is none, at least I have a friend.