The Difference Between Genuine Optimism and Toxic Positivity (And Why It Matters)

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 21 March 2019
  • 3 minute read
The Difference Between Genuine Optimism and Toxic Positivity | The Health Sessions

When’s the last time someone told you to “just be positive” after sharing your struggles?

There’s a tricky relationship between positive thinking, health and happiness. Over the past decade, experts have promoted positivity as a simple but highly effective tool to lead a happier and healthier life.

And rightfully so. Positivity has been linked to lower levels of stress, stronger immunity, better cardiovascular health, increased feelings of physical and emotional wellbeing, and even a longer lifespan. Cultivating positive feelings like joy, hope and inspiration also builds good mental habits such as attention, resilience and optimism, which in turn buffer the potential negative effects of stressful times.

But anyone’s who’s ever been seriously sick knows there’s another side to positive thinking and health. 

Because the positivity culture puts a lot of responsibility on a person’s shoulders. If you can feel healthier and happier by thinking positively, the reverse surely must also be true: the reason you’re still not better is because you’re not positive enough. Thanks to ‘The Secret’ and it’s Law of Attraction, there’s even a popular belief that you just need to send the right thoughts out into the Universe and the Universe will answer your prayers.

Even if your problem is largely outside of your control, the underlying message seems to be, “If only you’d thinking positively/eat right/follow this program, then you wouldn’t feel sad and sick.”

This kind of toxic positivity completely overlooks the severity of some situations. Sure, if someone’s down over a ruined meal or failed work assignment, you can tell them to just cheer up. But when someone is diagnosed with chronic illness or lost a loved one, it’s normal to go through stages of grief – sometimes more than once. Clinical depression and anxiety are medical conditions that cannot be cured by positive thinking and lifestyle changes alone.

In these cases, smilingly telling someone “don’t worry, you’ll get through it” or “think happy thoughts” doesn’t help – it hurts. Toxic positivity strips someone away of the validation they deserve and leaves them feeling ‘guilty’. Guilty for ‘contributing to their problems’, for ‘not being strong enough’ to get better by themselves. Instead of searching for ways to deal with the situation, people may start to doubt themselves, at a time when they need their confidence the most.

The thing is, most of the time those hollow phrases are actually well-meant advice. People often don’t know what to say, and they (we!) have a hard time really putting themselves and ourselves in someone else’s shoes. So we project our own somewhat similar situation onto others. “Oh, that time when I was ill, I just pushed the pain and all those negative thoughts away.”

But in our hurry to help our struggling friend, we stop listening to their story. Everyone has their own journey to go through. You can’t fast-forward to better times without going through the process of feeling overwhelmed, venting your emotions, organizing your thoughts and experimenting with different coping strategies.

If the standard positivity isn’t the best way to help, what can you do or say to convey genuine optimism? 

The Difference Between Genuine Optimism and Toxic Positivity (And Why It Matters) | The Health Sessions

How to Convey Genuine Positivity Instead of Toxic Positivity 

1. If you are the one struggling

First, let’s get this clear:

You’re not to blame for everything that happens to you, and you’re not solely responsible for the solution. It’s ok to ask for help.

If you’re going through tough times and the emotional rollercoaster that comes along with it, here are some strategies to cope better and rebuild …..

  • Don’t push negative feelings away. It’s perfectly normal to feel sad, angry, frustrated and hopeless when hardship strikes. Avoiding hurtful emotions works kind of like a boomerang – they come back when you least expect it to hit you in the face. Even positivity expert Barbara Fredrickson says that negative feelings are a normal part of life. What matters is the overall balance between the negative and positive emotions. Instead of pushing your sadness away, the trick is to find a way to deal better with it, so you don’t get stuck into a negative spiral.
  • Don’t fully identify with your problem or diagnosis. Even though chronic illness or tragic life events can have a huge impact on your everyday life, you’re also still you.
  • Learn the difference between the things you can and cannot change. There’s often something that can be done to improve your situation. Gather your courage and problem solving skills, make a list of possible solutions and start working on it. But, as much as the modern world hates to admit it, not everything is within our control. Not every illness can be cured, not every relationship can pass the test of time, not every problem can be solved overnight. Learning how to accept the things you cannot change is not an easy nor a quick process, but here are some psychological tips that might help.
  • Identify and correct cognitive thinking errors. It’s completely normal to have negative thoughts once in a while, but sometimes, you can develop negative thinking patterns that aren’t helpful. For example, you might take things too personally or immediately expect the worst case scenario when something doesn’t go as planned. We all make these cognitive errors, but they can be especially persistent when you’re depressed, anxious, stressed or sick. If that’s the case, challenge your thoughts. Is what you’re thinking true? Could there be a more helpful alternative thought?
  • With all the above in mind, it is possible to train your mind to see things more positively. You don’t need to see the world through rose-colored glasses, but I try believe that savoring the little good things in life makes it easier to get through the big bad ones.
  • When you don’t feel heard and understood by your family and friends, try to express your emotions in a constructive way. Maybe you could put your thought on to paper by journaling or find an (online) support group with people who are going through the same problem as you are.
  • Seek professional help if you need it. When you feel hopeless, deeply depressed, panicked or burnt out, please contact your doctor or reach out to a loved one to get you the help you need. Don’t struggle on your own. Always remember it’s a sign of strength to know when to ask for help to better deal with your problems.

The Difference Between Genuine Optimism and Toxic Positivity (And Why It Matters) | The Health Sessions

2. What to say when your family member or friend is struggling 

When a loved one shares their struggles with you, there are two important things to remember:

  1. Just like going through a divorce or losing your job, having a chronic illness or mental health disorder can turn your life upside down. Problems are real and it’s normal for people to feel sad, angry, frustrated and helpless.
  2. We all just want to be heard and understood. More than anything, people just want to get their problems off their chest. Sometimes just talking things through helps clear your mind and gives you the boost you need to tackle your problems (again).

That’s why my number one advice is: swallow your instinctive response to give advice or offer tips – unless your friend specially asks for it. Here are some ideas for what you can say instead:

  • “I’m sorry to hear what you’re going through. How can I help?”
  • “I know you’re going through a tough time. But I also know you’re strong. I believe in you.”
  • “It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and confused in your situation. We’ll make sense of thing later. Today, let’s just focus on taking the first step.”
  • “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you.”
  • “It’s never fun to feel down. Is there anything you can do today that will make you feel a little better?”
  • “You’re not wrong for feeling the way you do, and no one blames you for it.”
  • “I know it’s difficult, but you’re doing a great job handling this.”
  • “That sucks. What can I do to help?”
  • “When you’ve done all you could, sometimes giving up is the right thing to do. How would you like things to turn out? Is there any other way that you can make that happen?”

Basically, anything that validates your friends feelings and offers some comfort and support. 

With that in mind, you can easily put a truly positive spin to any well-meaning words.

Has positivity ever had a negative effect on you? Which words would you rather have heard? 

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