Not Everything Happens for a Reason:  Kicking the Toxic Positivity Habit

by Danielle Taylor, PsyD

We’ve all had our loved ones share their stressful experiences with us. For many of us those moments can feel uncomfortable and challenging because we want to help them feel better. Maybe we aren’t sure what to say or to do so we might throw something rote out there like-”focus on the positive,” “everything happens for a reason,” or “other people have it worse” to try to help. If you’ve ever found yourself saying or hearing something like that, then you are familiar with toxic positivity. Almost all of us have said something offhand, usually with good intentions, that falls into that category because we are all human. If you want to learn more about what makes these phrases toxic and what to try instead then read on!

Toxic Positivity Tells

Most catch-all phrases that suggest challenges can be fixed with a simple solution like positive thinking fall into the toxic positivity bucket. They remind me of the products peddled on “Made for TV” product infomercials. Very rarely is there one simple thing that can solve many complex problems in one go.  

Avoid: Any over simplistic platitudes that tell people what to do to make everything better. 

Genuine Support Asks

Typically people share their struggles with others because they are seeking connection and emotional support, not solutions. Try to be genuine and curious about what is happening for the other person. As you listen, seek to understand without trying to solve or change anything. If you sense that the person might be interested in advice, ask if they would like to hear your thoughts and respect their answer. 

Try Instead: Tell me what that was like for you. How can I show up for you? What would make you feel supported? Would you like me to listen, share my ideas or both? Would it be helpful if I shared a similar experience?

Toxic Positivity Invalidates

When you say something like, “look at the bright side” after someone tells you they are upset you are sending the message that the person should not feel the way they are feeling, which is invalidating. We all feel what we feel and sometimes we are not even sure why or exactly what (therapy is a great resource to help us figure that out). This may cause the person to feel even worse because now they believe that their feelings are somehow wrong or bad. While we can choose what to do with our feelings we cannot choose how we feel. Feelings are a source of information and are a sense,  much like sight or smell. If I see something I can decide how to respond to it but even if I close my eyes whatever I see will still be there, unchanged, just like our feelings. 

Avoid: Anything that sends the message that their feelings or experiences are not okay. Like saying “It’s not that big of a deal,” “it could be worse,” “look on the bright side,” “happiness is a choice.”

Genuine Support Makes People Feel Seen, Heard, & Understood

True support acknowledges the pain that the other person is in without trying to change it in any way. I know this may land as counterintuitive because so often we believe we have to fix things or make someone feel better. The reality is we cannot “fix” anyone’s feelings and instead we should believe what people tell us they are feeling or experiencing and validate that they have a right to feel whatever they feel.

Try Instead: I believe you! That sounds really tough. It seems like you are going through something extremely challenging for you. It is understandable to feel that way.

Toxic Positivity Draws Comparisons

It could be worse. Yes, essentially it could ALWAYS be worse but saying this isn’t particularly helpful. Even less helpful is comparing someone’s situation directly to another person’s. Pain is pain and sadly there is plenty to go around so we should all have the space to express what is causing us pain without having it compared to others. Comparing pain doesn’t diminish the pain for anyone; if I stub my toe, thinking of someone with a broken foot doesn’t provide any relief for my toe or for their foot! Same with emotional or psychological distress. 

Avoid: “It could be worse! At least you have (insert anything that is going well).”  

Genuine Support is Focused on That Person in That Moment

Sure, context is important but in the moment when someone is coming to you for support try your best to stay focused on them and their experience. Again, do your best to stay present, really listen, validate their experiences, and ask how you can support them. No need to bring anyone else, even yourself, into the scenario, just stay focused on the person in front of you!

Try Instead: “I am here. I hear you. That sounds like a lot to navigate. I sense you are really struggling with this.” 

The next time someone comes to you seeking support, remember that they are seeking connection and want to be seen, heard, and understood rather than told what to do. Try your best to stay present, open, and genuinely interested in what they share. Staying focused on them in that moment will help you to kick that toxic positivity habit in no time! And if you believe that they need additional support in learning more about themselves or navigating their experiences, suggest they consider therapy. You might want to consider it too as it is wonderful to have a safe space to be fully yourself!