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What is toxic positivity and why is it harmful?

BY Liza Morton

3rd Jan 2023 Life

What is toxic positivity and why is it harmful?

Dr Liza Morton, counselling psychologist and author, explores toxic positivity and why it can be harmful, particularly when you're ill

One of the most protective factors for our mental health and wellbeing is social support, particularly during times of poor health. To support us during such challenges, we often look to our healthcare providers, loved ones, friends and colleagues for compassion, reassurance or the opportunity to offload about our experiences. 

What is toxic positivity?

However, a common barrier to accessing this support can be unhelpful or toxic positivity. This is when someone minimises or denies your experiences with overly optimistic “feel good” quotes or statements such as, “But you look so well”, “You are lucky to be alive” or “I get tired/pain too, you’ve just gotta keep fighting”. 

The problem with these types of comments is that they can shut down the opportunity to open up about how you are really feeling or to explore the challenges that you face. In turn, this can leave you feeling invalidated, silenced and alone in your experience.  

What is toxic positivity?

Sometimes seemingly "positive" comments can leave you feeling invalidated and low

Comments that superficially seem complimentary, such as “You are always so brave”, “You’re such a fighter” or “Look on the bright side” can also prevent you from opening up about any difficulties you have. After such remarks, you may worry that if you share your distress it will be interpreted that you are no longer coping well, are being overly negative or becoming a burden. Comparisons with other people who seemingly have it worse or sayings such as "everything happens for a reason” or "happiness is a choice” can be equally frustrating.

"Comments that superficially seem complimentary can prevent you from opening up about difficulties"

At times, healthcare providers can also seem dismissive of illness experiences with comments like “Other patients don’t experience that symptom” or “You shouldn’t be feeling that” or “Don’t worry, this won’t hurt” before stabbing you with a needle! This can prevent you from sharing genuine anxieties and asking important questions for fear of being labelled a “difficult” or “anxious” patient.  

More overt microaggressions like, “It can’t be that bad because you were able to (work/shop/go out)”, “You just use your illness when it suits you” or “You’re attention seeking” can add to this toll. Over time you may find yourself building up resentment which can lead you to withdrawing from the relationship, passive aggressive behaviour or even angry outbursts. 

What can we do about it?

If this is a pattern that you have noticed in some of your relationships then you can kindly but firmly address it by explaining how these comments make you feel and what you need to feel better supported. Some people genuinely do not know what to say to offer support and struggle with being empathetic, especially if they have always enjoyed good health. Often they fall back on these trite phrases or quotes without understanding the impact they have. Or they might even regret what they have said afterwards.  

Sometimes we expect loved ones to be mind readers and then feel let down when they can’t figure out what is wrong with us, yet we have not even properly tried to explain it to them. It can be helpful to inform them more about your condition and how it impacts on you. By telling them how they can support you (listening, validating, sitting with you, a hug) your relationship will deepen.

You deserve to be supported through your experiences and finding people who are able to validate your reality and not just the “brave”, “inspirational” and “stoic” you is essential to this. If there are people in your life who continue to make you feel like this, even after you have tried to address the issue, then it may be time to set some firm boundaries around your contact with them and look for emotional support elsewhere. 

Supporting a friend

There are other ways to support someone

If you find that you are saying these types of things to someone in your life then there is always the opportunity to remedy the situation. Often we want to “fix” problems for people we care about and struggle with what to say when we cannot. However, offering a compassionate ear, just sitting with them, acknowledging their experiences and listening to them can be enough. Supportive comments such as “I am here if you want to talk”, “How can I support you?”, or validating their difficulties with remarks such as “That sounds really tough, I am sorry you are going through this” can help. It is okay to ask your family member or friend what they need from you if you are unsure. 

"There is always the opportunity to remedy the situation"

For some this might be practical support, for others just carefully listening or spending time together will suffice. If you are caring for someone with a serious health difficulty, particularly long-term, this can also be tough. It is important that you are taking care of yourself, asking for support and taking some time out. Otherwise, you risk suffering from burnout which can lead to decreased capacity for empathy and compassion.

Dr Liza Morton, PhD, and Tracy Livecchi, LCSW (USA) are the co-authors of the new book Healing Hearts and Minds: A holistic approach to coping well with congenital heart disease, published by Oxford University Press, New York

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