When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade…right? Turns out, sometimes it’s best to acknowledge the fact that you now have a s***-ton of lemons and leave it at that. While the term toxic positivity — a concept that recently made the social media rounds after an Instagram post from Miami-based psychotherapist Whitney Goodman — may sound oxymoronic, constantly putting on a happy face isn’t always the best move.
The basic premise: Offering consistently optimistic, glass-half-full platitudes to friends or family who are having a tough time can make them feel like they’re not being heard. “Being overly positive isn’t always a good thing because it tends to demean and ignore feelings of pain and hurt someone is experiencing,” explains relationship expert and therapist Tyra Gardner, PhD. “It can cause people to feel that their emotions are invalid.”
This often applies in scenarios where someone is confiding in you about a problem that doesn’t necessarily have a clear-cut solution – think relationship issues, career frustrations, financial stress or infertility. While the motivation behind a “Good vibes only!” or “Focus on the positive!” mantra may be good, blanket statements such as these can land the wrong way. These types of responses lack authenticity, not allowing room for the other person to process feelings and emotions, says Gardner.
And that can ultimately lead to some unwanted consequences. “Toxic positivity can cause conflict within relationships because people feel that their situation and emotions are being minimized and aren’t important,” Gardner adds. “They can start to feel uncomfortable and that you’re not a good support system.”
While it’s a completely understandable response — when someone is sad, we want to cheer them up and fix things – it’s important to keep in mind that he or she likely isn’t looking to you for a fix. Instead, what they may need is just a little compassion and sympathy that a positive one-liner isn’t going to offer, says Gardner. So what can you do instead? Try switching your mindset to focus on simply acknowledging them and what they’re going through, letting them know that you are there for them. (Check out that original toxic positivity Instagram post we mentioned for some helpful examples of what exactly to say to convey this.)
It’s also important to note that all of this goes for your relationship with yourself, too. Dismissing your own sad or stressed out feelings — whatever they may be about — and convincing yourself that it’s all sunshine and unicorns and rainbows 24/7 simply isn’t accurate or fair or human. Now, that doesn’t mean you should be a Negative Nancy all the time, either. At the end of the day, it’s about acknowledging, validating, and respecting all emotions — both positive and negative and everything in between — whether they’re your own or someone else’s.