Sometimes the worst thing you can say to a person who’s feeling bad is: “Cheer up!”
Chip Hooley learned this the hard way. At the beginning of the pandemic, his daughter, Hilary, called him in a panic. She and her husband had recently purchased an apartment in Brooklyn. Now, she was worried that real-estate prices in New York were falling and her friends were leaving the city.
Mr. Hooley, 60, a financial-firm executive from Cazenovia, N.Y., interrupted her. “Don’t worry, this will all work out for the best,” he said, launching into a pep talk. “I gave her all these positive thoughts,” he said. “I felt like Batman saving the world.”
Then his wife, who was sitting next to him, piped up. “That was the most annoying conversation I’ve ever heard,” she said. “Your daughter wanted to talk to her dad, and you didn’t even listen.”
Always look on the bright side of life?
Pushing away difficult emotions, such as sadness or fear, and forcing ourselves or others to be positive can be harmful to our mental well-being and our relationships, psychologists say. This is because practicing false cheerfulness—which they call “toxic positivity”—keeps us from addressing our feelings, and the feelings of others.
Why stifling difficult emotions doesn’t work
Yes, cultivating a positive mindset is a powerful coping mechanism, especially in tough times. But positivity needs to be rooted in reality for it to be healthy and helpful.
“Toxic positivity is positivity given in the wrong way, in the wrong dose, at the wrong time,” says
a grief expert and the author of six books about grief, including his latest, “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.”
It sounds like this: “Cheer up!” “Don’t worry!” “Stop focusing on the negative!” “Try to have a better attitude!”
We’re all guilty of it. Many of us were taught as children to banish so-called bad feelings—to pick ourselves up when we fall, stop complaining and count our blessings. And our fix-it-fast culture reinforces the message that to be positive is to succeed. (Just consider the phrase “winning attitude.”)
Often, we go overboard on positivity because we just don’t want to feel bad. And we don’t want the people we care about to feel bad, either.
Yet, difficult emotions are a part of life. To suppress them is to deny reality. Research shows that trying to stifle those emotions makes you feel worse because you never coped with them—plus, they will pop back up eventually. The brainpower it takes to push the emotion away keeps you focused on it.
“Think of emotions as a closed circuit,” says
a clinical psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “They have to go somewhere, so they come back up, like Whac-A-Mole.”
‘It wasn’t a minor problem for me’
Telling someone who is in emotional pain to buck up is invalidating and dismissive. Not only are you diminishing their feelings, you’re telling them that these feelings are part of their problem.
“It’s a form of gaslighting,” says
a psychologist and consultant at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts and the author of “Emotional Agility.” “You basically are saying to someone that my comfort in this situation is more important than your reality.”
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In reporting this column I heard about people with cancer who were told to stay positive because that will help them beat their illness; someone who was laid off being told that it was all for the best because he’d hated his job; and grieving siblings who were told “at least your mom died in her sleep.”
A recently widowed woman in Philadelphia, whose refrigerator conked out the night before she was hosting family members for a holiday dinner, recalled how a neighbor told her: “In the scheme of things, this is a very minor problem.” (“It wasn’t a minor problem for me,” she said.)
A mother in New Jersey said her teenage daughter complained that her constant attempts to put a positive spin on the challenges of the pandemic only made her feel more stressed. A musician in Florida said a good friend who was feeling down cut her off after she tried too hard to get her to look on the bright side. “I’ll call you back when I snap out of it,” she’d said.
A better approach
How can we avoid forced positivity, to better help ourselves or someone else who is down?
Start by recognizing that it is different from hope or optimism. Those emotions are rooted in reality, Dr. David says, while toxic positivity is a denial of it.
Don’t judge yourself, or others, for feeling difficult emotions. Be compassionate. Tell yourself: “I am feeling sad or lonely in the pandemic and that is normal.”
Ask yourself what you can learn from your feelings. “Emotions are data,” says Dr. David. “They are not good or bad. They are signposts to things we care about.” (Loneliness, for example, might signal that you need more connection.) And take action. Do something to address what you decided is missing.
“‘You don’t want to listen to respond and give advice. You want to listen to understand.’”
Remember it’s not your job to solve the other person’s problem, nor do they want you to. “You don’t want to listen to respond and give advice,’’ says Mr. Kessler. “You want to listen to understand.”
Dr. Dattilo suggests asking the other person what type of support he or she needs. And if you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s toxic positivity, explain that you don’t want advice. You just need an ear.
Mr. Hooley took his wife’s comment that his positivity was annoying to heart. “It was eye-opening to realize that it’s OK to be miserable once in awhile,” he says.
He called his daughter back that night and told her: “I just want to let you know that the situation does suck.” She was surprised. “It was nice to be validated,” says Ms. Hooley, 32, a senior merchandise planner for a retail company.
Now, Mr. Hooley tries to be a better listener. Last week, his daughter told him she was looking for a physical therapist because of back pain brought on by her pregnancy. At first, he launched into a positive spin. “At least your pain is because of a good reason!” he said. But then he caught himself and told her: “That’s no fun.” And he let her talk.
Being heard was nice, says Ms. Hooley. “You want to feel OK to not feel good in the moment.”
Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org
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