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Joy Velasco for Fatherly

Yeah, Toxic Positivity Is Very Real. Here’s How to Recognize It.

Gratitude is crucial. But if you regularly skim over what someone is saying and toss off an optimistic expression, you're doing more harm than good.

Just be grateful it isn’t worse. Look on the bright side. Everything happens for a reason. When you’re brave enough to share your struggles with friends, or family, these well-meaning, trite proverbs can feel more like jabs. And your frustration is totally valid: If you’re regularly spoon fed a forced silver lining perspective — a behavior known as “toxic positivity” — you’ll likely experience strain on both your mental health and your relationships.

Life isn’t exactly easy for anyone at the moment but being a parent during a pandemic comes with unique struggles. Maybe you’re doing your best to balance your remote work with your kids’ remote learning, or you’re feeling the strain of managing your own mental health while navigating your kids’ behavioral issues. Maybe you’re rightfully discouraged by the current state of the world.

Either way, empathy from other people isn’t always a given. In a culture that glorifies hard work and the appearance of “having it all together,” it can be easy for people to divert to toxic positivity.

“The basic notion is that you can somehow avoid your current distress by adding perspective,” says Kansas-based therapist James Cochran. “The list of combinations is long, but in all cases, someone is responding to your very real and very present pain with an insistence that you remain positive.”

It may seem obvious to you that validation is more comforting than a cliché that belongs on a decorative wood sign found in a Target, but for some people, airing struggle is a sign of weakness. Oregon-based marriage and family therapist Jason Wilkinson says people often default to a “just be grateful” attitude because it’s awkward to acknowledge another person’s pain or stress. There’s no script for acknowledging someone’s struggle, and it’s easier to try to eliminate the pain altogether with well-meaning but trite comments.

So, chances are, your overly optimistic loved ones have good intentions. But that doesn’t make their refusal to recognize your experience any less damaging. When you’re going through a tough time, toxic positivity is a lot like gas lighting — Wilkinson says it can cause you to question your emotional experience, which only triggers more stress. For example, if your parents respond to your frustrations about distance learning with a trite “This too shall pass,” you might end up feeling like you’re too critical or negative.

Over time, another person’s toxic positivity can take a toll on your mental health by causing you to avoid your own feelings.

“Judging yourself for feeling overwhelmed by parenting leads to what are referred to as secondary emotions such as shame that are much more intense and maladaptive,” says  therapist Carolyn Karroll, who practices in Maryland. “They distract us from the problem at hand and in the case of toxic positivity don’t give space for self-compassion, which is so vital to our mental health.”

Naturally, toxic positivity can also be damaging to relationships, and not just because it’s annoying — a refusal to validate your experience is also a refusal to truly connect. Cochran says when someone refuses to acknowledge another person’s difficulty, they’re also refusing to understand and support them — two things that are essential for healthy relationships.

Toxic positivity can also be a sign of, well, toxic people who just don’t want to deal with anything negative, including your difficult experiences.

“If you’re venting to a friend that caring for three kids under five is really taking it out of you, and they tell you to look for things to be grateful for, they’ve escaped responsibility for sitting with you in the midst of your pain,” Cochran says.

If you’re regularly on the receiving end of positive platitudes that diminish your experience, it might be time for a tough conversation about your needs. This part won’t be easy because the other person may clap back by making you feel negative. Stick with it, though: The benefits of feeling heard far outweigh the awkwardness of addressing the toxic elephant in the room.

As a general practice — especially when you don’t have supportive people around you — Karroll recommends validating your own experience. Remind yourself that whatever you’re feeling, your experience is part of the human experience, especially during a time of broader uncertainty and disconnection. She typically encourages her patients to practice gratitude while also acknowledging very present difficulties, losses, or grief.

And if you find yourself feeling awkward when someone else shares their emotions with you, practice simply listening instead of glossing over the problem. It’ll not only help the other person feel understood but also strengthen your relationship.

“Authentic presence is often the greatest gift a person can give,” Wilkinson says. “So do the hard work of expanding your capacity to sit with pain and discomfort.”