The Dangers of Toxic Positivity, Signs of Gaslighting + Tips on What NOT to Say to Someone Who is Grieving with Therapist Whitney Hawkins Goodman

We have all heard the phrase “look on the bright side” at least once in our lives. And yes, sometimes we do need those little reminders to be positive: “stop and smell the roses”, “things will get better” and “remember, the glass is half full”. But what happens when these reminders become toxic? What happens when positivity shuts down, rather than opens up, the path to healing? In this week’s blog and podcast, I talk with licensed marriage and family therapist Whitney Hawkins Goodman about the dangers of toxic positivity, the relationship between toxic positivity and gaslighting, how to be truly empathetic, the power of learning, how to listen, and how to comfort someone who is grieving.

Whether we are in a good or bad place, or something in between, we need to learn how to express and talk about our feelings. As Whitney notes, one of the most important things we can do in our lives and in our society is to normalize talking about our mental health. Our feelings do not make us weak or less human. We are not designed to be happy all the time. In fact, when we suppress our painful emotions, we weaken ourselves, mentally and physically.

Of course, trying to be positive is not always a bad thing. It can, however, become toxic when we shame ourselves for having normal human emotions by saying things like “I have so much to be grateful for” or “it’s not such a big deal” when we feel sad, angry, distressed or unhappy. It also becomes toxic when we use platitudes like “you will be fine” and “everything happens for a reason” in situations where people are looking for validation, comfort or just someone to sit with them. 

This kind of toxic positivity can be a form of gaslighting. Gaslighting is manipulation tactic (intentional or otherwise) that is used to make someone question their own reality and deny their own thoughts, feelings and experiences. It is very destabilizing, and over time, it can be very traumatic, making someone feel that there is something wrong with them for feeling the way they do. When we gaslight someone by saying things overly positive things like “everything happens for a reason” and “it will all work out for the good”, we are often invalidating another person’s pain and experiences in order to appease our own feelings and need for comfort and stability.

Gaslighting and toxic positivity can also be a form of racial prejudice. Using phrases like “all lives matter”, “let’s all just love each other” and “I don’t see color” when talking about race invalidate the pain and traumatic experiences Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) face on a daily basis. When we use positivity in this way, it shuts down open and honest communication. As a result, we run the risk of not making the personal and societal changes that need to be made, which will only make things worse in our society. We should never use positivity to hide the ugly—in our life or in our communities.   

Yes, we may have the best of intentions, but that is not enough. When it comes to what we say and do, it is far better to think about what impact our behavior will have. We should always ask someone how we can validate what they are going through in a way that works for them, not in a way that feels good for us. Positivity and good intentions can quickly become toxic if we don’t pay attention to the timing, our audience and the topic. Whitney notes that a good rule of thumb is to avoid using positivity to deal with or paper over big topics like death and loss, racism, sexism, homophobia, trauma, infertility, parenting, and physical appearance. These are major issues that often don’t have easy answers, or any good answers at all, and a good, well- meaning phrase now and then will only make things worse.

If you find that you often use positivity in this way,

  1. Be forgiving and compassionate with yourself. Shame will only get you stuck in a negative spiral. Remember, we are all human, and we all mess up at times.
  1. Be open and honest. Acknowledge that you may not have validated the person’s experiences. Apologize. Become aware of what you think, say and do. Pause and think before you respond.
  1. Always be curious. Ask compassionate questions. Ask the person what it is like for them. Don’t just try to “fix” the issue.

We always need to remind ourselves that sometimes there is no reason something bad happens. A lot of things will never make sense, even if something good comes from them. The person who tends to say “there is a reason for everything” is generally trying to make “it” make sense to them—it is scary to live in a world where things seem crazy and confusing, as we can see in the current pandemic. But we have to learn how to sit with this discomfort. We need to acknowledge that many things are uncertain, that sometimes things don’t work out, and that it is okay to not understand or to feel anxious or sad or depressed at times.

Indeed, when someone you know is grieving, one of the worst things you can do is say something overly positive like “there is a reason for everything”, “all things work out for the good” or “at least they are in a better place”. This can negate the person’s grief or pain, and make them feel like they don’t have a right to be sad or upset. These kind of statements tend to shut down, not open up, healthy dialogue.

So, what is the best way to help someone who is grieving? As Whitney notes, it is far better to:

  1. Be honest and be present. Try to avoid those conciliatory phrases that tend to fall out of our mouth when we don’t know what to say. If you don’t know what to say, then be honest. Sit with them—let that person know you are there for them.
  1. Act rather than speak. Show them you are present by doing something for them. Buy them a coffee, help clean their home, get their groceries, leave a voicemail letting them know you are there for them, and so on.
  1. Listen and tune into this person. When appropriate, ask them things like “what’s this like for you?”, “what is the hardest part?” or “what are you struggling with?”. Give them permission to share their experience with you.

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that there will be periods in your life, and in the lives of the people you love, where it will be very hard to be happy about much. We need to give ourselves and others permission to experience and validate our painful emotions. These are signals that are telling us that something is going on, which will help us grow and learn.

For more on toxic positivity, gaslighting, grief and mental health, listen to my podcast with Whitney (episode #183), and see her website, her online courses, her Instagram and her Facebook. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing! And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media (don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!). 

Podcast Highlights 

1:42 Why Whitney thinks it is important to talk about our emotions and mental health 

2:40 What is toxic positivity? 

13:30 How can you train yourself to become more aware of your intentions?

14:55 What is the difference between shame and guilt, and what do they have to do with toxic positivity?

17:31 What is gaslighting?

19:11 Gaslighting and racism

21:34 How to help someone who is grieving 

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