“Don’t worry, be happy! It could be worse. It is what it is.” by Toxic Positivity

December 28, 2021

I remember years ago when I had a Toyota there was a dealership I’d go to regularly for oil changes and other car repair. You know how you drive into a big open space, like a warehouse? Well, there was a huge banner hanging inside that said SMILE. And maybe it had a smiley face. It kind of pissed me off; like it was a command – come here and spend more money than you need to and dammit, you better have a big fat smile on your face as you wait an inordinate amount of time to be waited on by surly people.

And maybe Bobby McFerrin’s song was popular around that time or isn’t that song always in vogue – DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY! I’ve liked the song; hey, it got everyone to know who Bobby McFerrin is but people in San Francisco knew of him and his leadership in a 24-hour acapella song event at Grace Cathedral on New Year’s Eve. That was something to be happy about.

But I digress. No one wants to be forced to smile or be happy.

A month or so ago I was on a Zoom chat with one of my new Mendocino friends. We’ve bonded over having chronic health conditions. Hopefully you’ll meet her soon. I can’t recall the context, but she used the term toxic positivity. I’d never heard that term before. But I remember it perfectly described what we were talking about.

And then I started seeing the term in other places. You know how that is, something is unearthed and then all of a sudden, it’s everywhere!

So, skip forward to a week or so ago. I was telling someone about a virtual support group I had facilitated. We were sharing coping tools for the holidays which can often be so bittersweet. Especially when you have a chronic health condition and you’re around friends and/or family that just don’t get your condition and challenges.

It was a good meeting. Several of the people in this group have never attended a support group meeting…and are a little shy about sharing. But it was going well until this one gentleman started saying something like how he didn’t understand why people weren’t happy or joyful. He went on to share how his family and friends help him and he’s just jolly jolly jolly. He, I seem to recall, said something to the effect of DON’T BE NEGATIVE, I don’t like all of this negativity.

In my 23+ years of facilitating support groups I have vast experience of dealing with negative people bringing a vibe down but rarely had I experienced this kind of behavior.

It wasn’t a downer meeting…just people honestly sharing what seems to be a difficult time for many people. Like, you don’t have to have a debilitating progressive neuromuscular disease to understand how the holidays are bittersweet for many.

So, as I said, I was sharing this experience with someone in the patient support community, and he said, “you know I think this is an example of toxic positivity.”

According to the Mental Health Association in Delaware:

With toxic positivity, people’s negative emotions and experiences are downplayed and disregarded. Instead, only positive feelings and experiences are encouraged.

Apparently, this has become more of an issue during the pandemic.

The website goes on to say:

Toxic positivity statements can be directed towards others, stated by others, and aimed towards oneself. Some signs of toxic positivity statements may be dismissing emotions, minimizing someone’s experience, giving one’s perspective instead of validating someone’s emotions, shaming someone for expressing frustration, and brushing things off. Some examples include:

  • “Just get on with it.”
  • “It could be worse.”
  • “It is what it is.”
  • “Don’t worry, be happy!”
  • “Positive vibes only!”

Did you hear that one Mr. Bobby McFerrin?

Okay, I am guilty of using the statement “It is what it is.” But in defense, I’ve used this for minor setbacks like when our cat Abner knocked over our tree and some precious ornaments broke. I was mad for a little bit but my partner was sad and cried. I said It is what it is.

A more compassionate response, as I’ve learned, would have been:

  • “I see you, and I’m here for you.”
  • “Describe what you’re feeling, I’m listening.”
  • “This is really hard, I’m thinking of you.”
  • “Failure is a part of growth and success.”
  • “I see that you’re stressed, is there anything I can do?”

But what about the support group? How do I handle the perpetrator of the toxic positivity when it’s not me?

I think I mentioned to Mr. Positive in Your Face how I’m a big proponent of positivity – after all, I have a podcast called Glass Half Full – but it’s also very common to have a difficult time with the holidays. I cut him off too…because…wouldn’t you know, Mr. Positive attempted to dominate the conversation. I wonder if he listens to my podcast. Hmmm.

In addition to the website for the Mental Health Association in Delaware another high ranked Google search result was a podcast on KQED. The episode focuses on teachers who have had a particularly rough time during the pandemic – having to change curriculum for remote learning, having a hybrid setup with in-person teaching on one day and remote the next day as well as having real fears of dying and/or separation from their child if exposed.

In some communities’ teachers were force-fed positive phrases and instructed to do breathing exercises. One woman talks about being shown a TED talk with psychologist Kelly McGonigal talking about making stress your friend. The podcast narrator defines toxic positivity as focusing on the positive and ignoring the negative. This mindset has caused a lot of teachers to feel guilty, stressed, and overwhelmed.

Ironically, McGonigal is one of the psychologists often featured on one of my favorite websites – the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley. I decided to see what articles The Center had about toxic positivity. The search results displayed one with the entire phrase; there were many results for “toxic” or “positivity.” The one result was a comment from someone in response to a “Finding Silver Linings” practice. The truncated comment included, “I do wonder how this process starts touching on the territory of toxic positivity. When we’re frustrated and discouraged, how can we own the feelings and…”

So, toxic positivity has not yet merited much attention from the Greater Good Science Center. Interesting.

I know how hard it is to hear about someone’s suffering. Even if you are compassionate, you might not know what to say. And often there isn’t any magic phrase to ease their discomfort; maybe they just want to be heard, or witnessed?

But let’s all agree…when we’re hurting there isn’t anyone that can whisper a few words to snap you out of it. DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY! Wow, if that worked we’d have no need for psychologists, therapists, counselors, alcohol….You get the point.

I’m still all about tools and resources to help manage difficult physical and emotional issues. But sometimes you need to sit with something and wait and find the right path out.

So during this holiday time, please be gentle with yourself as well as others. If someone is hurting, ask them if you can help but don’t assume that what works for you will work for them like a magic pill.

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Glass Half Full with Leslie Krongold, Ed.D. © 2018