The Cure for Toxic Positivity

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WWhen my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 52, I was flooded with emails, calls, and in-person pep talks from friends and acquaintances. Anyone who’d ever met me, it seemed, was eager to offer up a platitude. “Think positive,” they told me. “It will be okay. He’ll get through this.”

But his cancer didn’t go away, and neither did the deluge of optimism that flowed over both of us — my dad, the patient, and me, his sole caregiver. It was wearing him down, and me along with him.

During one visit, family acquaintances kept steering the conversation back to a supposed Amazonian miracle cure they’d read about. My dad should try it, they said. You never know. When I pointed out that he wasn’t exactly in a condition to travel to South America, they suggested I go hunt it down and bring it back.

That was when I finally snapped and asked them to leave.

Relentless focus on positivity isn’t just ineffective. Research has shown that it’s actually harmful.

I know they were well-meaning. Everyone who offered us encouragement was. I also know I’ve done the same thing over the years, insisting to loved ones going through a hard time that they should stay strong, that everything would get better. In the moment, confronted with someone else’s distress, it’s a natural instinct to try verbally willing it away.

But that relentless focus on positivity — what Kate Bowler, a Duke Divinity School professor and former cancer patient, described in her memoir Everything Happens for a Reason as “the tyranny of prescriptive joy” — isn’t just ineffective. Research has shown that it’s actually harmful.

One 2012 study found that encouraging people to push away their negative emotions often has the opposite effect, making them feel bad about feeling bad, in addition to whatever else they were already going through. A 2005 study found that relentlessly focusing on the positive during times of stress — what the authors call “avoidance coping” — increased the risk of depressive symptoms later on. And there are plenty of other examples out there pointing to the same conclusion: Forced positivity often leaves us worse off.

It can eat away at relationships, too. “Seeking out people who bring ‘positive vibes only’ will ensure shallow bonds,” says Cleveland-based therapist Karly Hoffman King, whose work focuses on trauma. Instead, the relationship becomes a performance of happiness. Difficult conversations, moments of vulnerability — all off the table. “People are left to deal with their feelings alone instead of seeking support,” says King. “Offering up toxic positivity like ‘look on the bright side’ or ‘it could be worse!’ often just makes the other person feel invalidated, creating a wedge between the two of you.”

In her work counseling cancer patients, Los Angeles-based health psychologist Stephanie Davidson often encounters family members who maintain a facade of positivity so extreme that the patient feels they can’t discuss their fear or the losses they’re experiencing. “Feelings that we don’t like are not the enemy, and there’s no research that says acknowledging those feelings will make medical conditions worse,” Davidson says. “However, there is research that says that those who are not able to get support from those around them tend to do worse.”

When you’re watching someone suffer, though, how do you know when your well-intended support has become something more insidious?

The answer can be surprisingly simple.

Be conscious of how your friends react to your encouragement

If what you’re saying makes them smile or perk up, you probably aren’t forcing positivity on them. If, on the other hand, words of encouragement shut down conversations or seem to make them withdraw, that’s a sign that your sunny attitude is misplaced.

Think, too, about what they seem to need in the moment

Are they asking for a pep talk? Or are they looking for a place to vent or cry? It can be uncomfortable to simply sit with someone else’s emotions, rather than reaching for a solution. But often, that’s what’s necessary. Shift your focus: Listen to understand instead of listening to respond.

Ask questions that help your friend or loved one develop the story they’re telling

Something as simple as, “How did you feel?” can be validating. It lets them acknowledge and share their experience with the problem they’re facing. And then, instead of offering a positive cliche, say something that clearly communicates that you see what they’re going through. They can’t shut their eyes and pretend the problem doesn’t exist; show them that you won’t, either.

If a loved one is coping with a chronic illness, instead of, “It could be worse!” say, “That sounds really hard,” and ask if they want to talk about it.

If a friend is having problems in their relationship, instead of, “Cheer up,” say “What’s going on?”

If your significant other has blown a presentation at work, instead of “You’ll get past it,” say, “Wow, that’s rough. Tell me what happened.”

The common theme with all of these responses is that they keep the conversation going instead of shutting it down. Over time, I was more comfortable telling my family that this was what I needed from them: to be able to steer the conversation, even if it went someplace dark, and know that they’d see it through.

“The world cannot be remade by the sheer force of love,” Bowler wrote in Everything Happens for a Reason. I learned that, too, while watching my dad struggle with a body that had turned on him. He passed away in 2014, four years after his diagnosis. I miss him every day, but empathy did, and still does, make it easier to bear.

Journalist and fiction writer. Bylines: the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Paris Review, Tin House, The Guardian, National Geographic, etc.

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