“We’re in this together.”
“Good vibes only.”
In the midst of the pandemic, reminders to stay upbeat are everywhere. Mottos, memes and maxims along with Twitter hashtags and Instagram accounts are devoted to preaching optimism as an approach to manage the epic uncertainty.
But for some people, the relentless focus on the bright side can go too far.
Psychologists, who coined the term “toxic positivity,” point out that the mind-over-matter message isn’t always the right approach, especially when it ignores, suppresses or dismisses negative feelings caused by grief, trauma or mental illness.
“Telling someone who is hurting to be positive is well-intentioned, but it backfires,” said therapist Sherry Merriam. “It asks people to stuff their very real feelings. It makes the people it’s supposed to help feel even worse.”
A licensed professional clinical counselor, Merriam recently moved her practice from her Edina office to her Hopkins dining room, where she now sees her clients via computer screen. While the toll from the shutdown has been widespread, Merriam said the losses are particularly harsh for those already dealing with mood disorders and anxiety.
“It’s as if this turned up the gravity on the planet. For those people, whatever they were trying to do feels harder and heavier now,” she said. “Now we see the pressure to make something positive out of this situation — get that sourdough started, read those books. It’s wonderful for those who can use those things as coping mechanisms, but a lot of people can’t and they feel like a failure. That’s what makes it toxic.”
Long before the arrival of the coronavirus, JD Holmquist learned firsthand about toxic positivity.
In 2009 when he was a college student, he was drugged, beaten and sexually assaulted. As he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath, he grew weary of being told to cheer up and count his blessings.
“Right from the start, I got a lot of unsolicited advice from everyone I interacted with in positions of power — police, nurses, doctors,” said Holmquist, of Milaca, Minn. “The message was, ‘If you’re sad or depressed or experience a panic attack, cover it up.’ ”
Holmquist, who has an undergraduate degree in psychology and master’s degrees in public health and criminal psychology, is now a victim’s advocate. He regularly lobbies for more professional support for people who have survived trauma.
“It makes other people feel better when they tell you that things will look up. They can think, ‘I gave you wonderful advice on how to manage your mental health,’ ” he said. “For a long time I tried to force myself to believe that and I wound up ignoring very real conditions. Pushing away something that needs to be felt can make it fester. It’s OK not to be OK.”
A different message
Positivity needn’t be toxic. A body of research finds that cultivating a positive outlook can boost immunity, lower stress levels and even lengthen life spans.
But due to their personalities, brain chemistries or experiences, not everyone can simply adopt a happy-go-lucky outlook. Denying negative emotions takes its own toll, according to social scientists.
Stanford researchers who followed participants for 10 years concluded that denying negative feelings as a coping mechanism during stressful times was linked to a heightened risk of later depressive symptoms. A 2012 Australian study found that people who followed social expectations about feeling happy actually felt sad “more frequently and intensely.”
“Research has shown us that it’s normal for different people to have different set points with their emotions,” said Mary Jo Kreitzer, founder and director of the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota.
“Someone who is experiencing overwhelming feelings of sadness can’t flip a switch or jolly their own way out of it,” she said. “Toxic positivity refuses to acknowledge their challenges. If we ask others to be inauthentic, that doesn’t build resiliency and relationships.”
Kreitzer, a professor in the university’s School of Nursing, encourages parents to allow their children to express a range of feelings.
“From the time kids are young, we can let them know you can be angry, you can be sad, it’s OK,” she said. “You don’t have to go through life on autopilot. That’s a different message than one that says, ‘Get over it. Change your attitude. If you’re struggling, you’re weak,’ ” she said.
Bridget Siljander considers toxic positivity to be particularly cruel when directed at people with disabilities.
“We act like if they just try harder they can be happy. That ignores science. It ignores diversity. It ignores trauma,” said Siljander, of Minneapolis. “It feels fake and makes them feel more alone and less hopeful.”
A graduate student at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, Siljander has worked as an advocate, employment counselor and personal care attendant for people with disabilities.
“Saying ‘be positive’ marginalizes and isolates people,” she said. “I’m autistic, I have depression and anxiety and I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD. It’s not realistic to ask me to conform to these very specific, socially valued emotions.”
Siljander said the toxic positivity in messages during the weeks of the stay-at-home order have been especially jarring.
“When I hear, ‘Everything is going to be OK,’ I think, ‘Speak for yourself.’ If your needs are being met, you can spout out platitudes. It’s a slap in the face to people who don’t have the financial or emotional resources to absorb the losses they’re facing.”
That’s not to say that focusing on the positive is ineffective. Siljander acknowledges that looking for silver linings helps some people bounce back.
“If it works for you, it’s not toxic,” she said. “If it makes someone else feel invalidated, it is.”
If you or someone you know is struggling, looking on the bright side may not be helpful. Trying to reason away negative feelings or demanding that you “Snap out of it!” likely won’t do any good and may, in fact, be harmful.
Instead, when someone expresses their emotions, listen, then acknowledge and validate their feelings. Instead of assuring them that everything will be OK, say, “I’m here for you, I care for you,” and ask how you can support them.
If someone feels overwhelmed, give them space to talk about their experience without judgment. You can say, “That sounds hard for you, tell me more about that.”
Don’t tell them what you would do or feel in their place. Instead, ask them if they just need to vent or want advice.
If the negative feelings deepen or linger, don’t play therapist. People with persistent depressive feelings should be encouraged to see a physician and a mental health professional.
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.