“When you can’t look on the bright side, I will sit with you in the dark.” ~Unknown
It’s hard and uncomfortable to sit with pain, our own or someone else’s.
We don’t like to see people hurting, especially people we love, because we instinctively want to make them feel better, and we feel powerless if we think we can’t.
We feel like we have to do something. We have to say something. We have to somehow pull them out of the darkness—and we often try to do this by dousing them with light.
We do this to ourselves as well, and it’s painfully invalidating.
“Look on the bright side!” we might say, forgetting it’s possible to feel gratitude and sorrow at the same time. To have perspective and pain simultaneously.
“Don’t be so negative!” we might say. As if it’s bad to express or even feel heavier emotions—like anger, sadness, fear, disappointment, frustration, and annoyance.
And the worst trap of all: We convince ourselves that all this toxic positivity is shaping us a better future. As if a “positive” mind always leads to a “positive” life.
But I’ve found that the dichotomy of “positive” and “negative” vastly oversimplifies the messiness of being human. And it compels us to minimize our complex feelings instead of giving ourselves permission and space to work through them.
That’s what gives us hope—not pretending that all we see is light but sitting in the darkness until we’re ready to find it.
The following are ten things I believe we need to stop saying to ourselves and each other, and how we can offer validation and nurture healthy optimism instead.
1. Toxic Positivity: Just stay positive and things will work out.
Reality: Nothing is guaranteed, regardless of your mindset, and it’s okay to have fears and worries about all the things you can’t control. But odds are you’ll feel better if you balance your totally understandable thoughts about everything that could go wrong with thoughts about everything that could go right. And when you feel better, you’ll be better able to see opportunities where before you may have only seen obstacles.
2. Toxic positivity: You’ll be fine.
Reality: If you define “fine” as not dead, then odds are you will be. If you’re hoping for more than just “fine”—if you’re ready to stop merely surviving and start thriving in life—it might take a while.
It’s okay to grieve for all the time you’ve been merely “fine,” and it’s okay to worry about years more of the same. If you let yourself feel those feelings, you’ll be better able to do the things that will help you heal so you can finally leave survival mode and get a lot more out of life.
3. Toxic Positivity: Stop worrying and trust the universe.
Reality: Trusting the universe won’t change that you might get hurt in life, and it’s normal to worry about just how badly that might be.
Instead of trusting in something external, try to trust in yourself. Trust that you’re strong enough to handle whatever is coming, and even if it’s not something you would have chosen, you can learn and grow from it and find a way to make the best of it.
4. Toxic Positivity: If you change your attitude, everything will change.
Reality: None of us has so much power that simply changing our attitude will change our circumstances. And changing your attitude isn’t like flipping a light switch. It can take time to address the limiting beliefs under your thoughts and feelings—beliefs likely adopted through highly traumatic experiences.
Be gentle and patient with yourself as you work toward shifting your internal state, and know that as you begin to see things differently, you’ll be able to slowly make external changes.
5. Toxic Positivity: Focus on how fortunate you are; other people have it worse.
Reality: You’re likely fortunate in many ways, and it’s true that there are people out there with devastating challenges you don’t have. But that doesn’t mean your own struggles and feelings aren’t valid.
Minimizing your pain won’t make it go away. Allow yourself to feel both blessed and stressed instead of shaming yourself for the latter. When you accept your feelings, they’ll loosen their grip on you—so let them in before trying to let them go.
6. Toxic Positivity: Life’s too short to feel bad all the time.
Reality: If you feel bad all or most of the time, it’s not because you’ve forgotten the average lifespan. It’s because you’re struggling with real challenges and you need help. You can’t change how you feel through sheer will. You don’t need an invalidating cliché, you need support. Everything feels more manageable when you remember you’re not alone.
7. Toxic positivity: You have too much going for you to feel so down.
Reality: It might be true that you have a lot working in your favor, externally, at least, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t struggle emotionally. Most of our struggles have more to do with what’s going on internally, so even people who appear to “have it all” can hurt tremendously.
Focus on why you’re struggling instead of whether you should be. Getting to the root of your pain won’t ensure you never feel down again, but it will help you heal so that you can feel better more often than not.
8. Toxic positivity: Think happy thoughts and you’ll live a happy life.
Reality: No one has complete control over their thoughts. They arise without our conscious choice. And trying to strong-arm your brain into submission won’t guarantee you feel happy all the time. That said, a depressed mind tends to churn out more defeatist thoughts, fueling more depressed feelings, and it can become a vicious cycle.
Instead of trying to control your mind, get help to get to the root of your depression (possibly linked to trauma or learned helplessness). Healing is the key to a happier life.
9. Toxic positivity: Everything happens for your highest good.
Reality: Some things that happen will never seem positive, no matter how hard you try to spin them, and that’s okay.
It might empower you to reframe a painful experience by considering how it might have happened for you, not to you. But you don’t need to believe that traumas and tragedies were handed to you by some cosmic force solely for your benefit. You just need to find a reason to go on based on what’s meaningful and empowering to you personally.
10. Toxic positivity: Things aren’t as bad as they seem.
Reality: To someone else your circumstances might seem perfectly manageable, but to you, they may seem unbearable and insurmountable. It’s okay to feel devastated, scared, overwhelmed, or whatever else you feel. It’s okay to fall apart even if someone else thinks you’re overreacting.
Once you allow yourself to feel what you need to feel you may slowly start to shift your perspective on what you’re going through. Take all the time you need to get there, knowing you won’t feel this way forever.
And now a caveat: I’m not saying that positivity is always bad, swinging the pendulum from one black-and-white perspective to another. I’m suggesting that no emotions are bad, and that it isn’t negative to embrace them, for as long as we need to.
We don’t have to rush our healing. We don’t have to put a timeline on grieving. We don’t have to force a smile or pretend we’re okay and write that we’re #blessed when we feel we’re not.
It’s okay to believe life sucks sometimes—because it absolutely does. It can also be beautiful. It’s not either/or, it’s both.
But the only way we can ever fully appreciate the beauty is by allowing ourselves to feel the pain. Otherwise, we’ll just be numb, walking around with our humanity dammed behind an emotional firewall because we’re afraid to let it out. Afraid it might consume us or that others might judge us when they see the messy depths of our emotional angst.
Some might. But I’d rather be judged for owning my darkness and my damage than subconsciously shame myself by pushing them down.
And I’d rather feel better after letting myself hurt than prolong my pain by pretending I’m fine when I’m not.
So here’s my invitation to you: Feel the hurt and do nothing. Hear the sadness and say nothing. Don’t try to fix it, soften it, solve it, resolve it, or otherwise make it go away. Don’t force yourself to appreciate it or try to reframe until you first let yourself fully feel it.
Healing happens by feeling. And true healing feels a whole lot better than false positivity.