Skip to content

Positively harmful responses

It is never comfortable to see someone you love in pain, and often, that discomfort makes people try to cheer their friend/family member up. "Hey, it could be worse," they tell them; "You're going to come out of this better than ever," or some other well-meaning turn of phrase. Responses like that are great for some people, but for many – I'd actually guess the majority of us – they leave us feeling shamed, rejected and invalidated.

While I don't believe the glass-half-full cheerleaders have any malicious intent, there is such a thing a toxic positivity, and it does real harm. 

It's not easy to admit you're not doing well, and it takes real courage to be vulnerable and ask for help. But when the feedback received is to "buck up" and "look on the bright side," it minimizes that person's struggle and destroys confidence – both in the friendship and in themselves. When you tell someone who is suffering to "hang in there," you're telling that person you don't know how to handle their "problem" and would rather move on to lighter topics.

After having their issues dismissed, this person may no longer seek help, they may think they are wrong to feel the way they do and hate themselves for it, or they may try to convince themselves everything is fine and bottle those emotions until it become so overwhelming they can no longer cope alone. It can also leave the individual feeling like a burden to those they've confided in, which can create feelings of guilt that they've made you uncomfortable or added to your problems, or the fear you will no longer want to be in their life if they continue to express unhappiness.

A 2012 University of Queensland School of Psychology study found when people perceive others think they should feel happy, and not sad, this leads them to feel sad more frequently and intensely. And research published in BMC Psychiatry in 2011 suggested some types of support from family and friends lowers self-esteem. One participant said, "It made me feel worthless no one fully understands." Another, "My family...felt overwhelmed and inadequate and just wanted me to get better, which increased the pressure and feelings of inadequacy that I already had."

So, the next time you feel the urge to find the silver lining in another's situation, take a beat and consider whether this is really what this person needs. Let them know you hear them and acknowledge the struggle – "That sounds really hard." Then ask if they'd like to talk about it and – here's the kicker – listen to understand, not to fix. 




Allison Chorney

About the Author: Allison Chorney

Read more