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The Dangers of Toxic Positivity to Our Mental Health

Toxic positivity is an ineffective overgeneralization of a phrase or saying that highlights a happy or optimistic state when said or communicated to a person who is feeling down. It is a phrase that invalidates the authenticity of human emotional experience, and is normally said or expressed in a hollow way with no real empathetic qualities or regard to an individual’s situation.

We all have those friends who want to be there for us through the tough times, and that’s great! When we go through tough times, we want that support so we don’t have to face our problems alone, and having that person by your side supporting you through takes a bit of the weight from your shoulders.

“You will be fine.”

“Just think positively.”

“Things always sort themselves out.”

“You will get through this.”

These are just some of the reassuring comments that you are likely to hear. Although your friend (or support person) means well when they say these things, have they actually put any thought into what they are saying as reassurance? How do you hear it? How do you decode it?

From counseling terminology, you have a talker (called the encoder) and the listener (called the decoder). Of course, the person speaking is the one trying to tell you their story, and they tell you it to the best of their abilities so you are able to understand their situation. The Encoder. The Listener then takes in the information that the talker is conveying and decodes it so they can understand the situation.

If you are struggling with a mental health condition, let’s say depression for example, and someone says to you “Just be happy,” how would you decode that? What is your perspective? Most people would hear that and think the other person is just trying to be nice, but since I learned about toxic positivity, I now perceive what many others would hear as words of reassurance……I hear as empty words.

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I am not being ungrateful, but just by listening to what people say and how they say it can tell you a lot about a person. Toxic positivity can also be found all over the internet via thousands of “feel good” memes. This is why using the correct terminology and string of words when talking to a person struggling with a mental health problem is very important, because those empty reassuring words such as “Just stop being sad and start being happy” can actually make someone feel even worse.

Toxic positivity is widespread. So let me tell you how to avoid using toxic positivity to try and make someone feel better. It is very simple…..tap into your empathy. When someone is explaining their depression or situation to you, really listen to them and understand their perspective….put yourself in their shoes and respond with empathy.

A general example: “I am so sorry to hear you are going through this right now. Is there anything we can do to improve your situation?”

A response like this shows that you have listened to the person to understand them, and have decoded their message correctly. The follow up question shows them that you are willing to help and will go out of your way to assist them.

That is just a quick example a better thing to say. But remember to respond in a way that shows the person struggling that you truly care, because empty words will stand out like a sore thumb to someone who is going through a tough time. Always be kind.

Getty image by Ridofranz

Originally published: January 15, 2021
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