Having a positive attitude towards mental health is a goal we should all strive for - whether we’re helping others or dealing with something ourselves. However, sometimes the way we preach positivity can have a negative effect. Here are some ways to be helpful, not harmful, when it comes to mental health positivity.
What is 'toxic positivity'?
I would define ‘toxic positivity’ as positivity that has a harmful effect. When we ignore all negative feelings or push them away, they can build up inside us and have a negative effect on our mental health. For example, saying things such as “good vibes only” or “think happy thoughts” ignores the existence of difficult feelings. Phrases such as “cheer up” or “just don’t worry” are also examples of toxic positivity.
Anyone who has struggled with their mental health knows that sometimes it’s really difficult to be happy. Negative emotions are part of being human, sometimes we have to feel them. And that’s okay!
How does 'toxic positivity' affect us?
What effect does forced positivity have on people? To get a real answer to this, I spoke to some of my friends about their experiences:
- “When people tell you to ‘just stop worrying’, it’s like they expect you to easily feel better with a click of your fingers. I know they’re trying to help but I’d rather people really listen and support me.”
- “Whenever I get told to cheer up, it makes me feel guilty for something I already can’t control.”
- “It just shows me that the person is being dismissive and can’t relate to what I’m going through.”
- “I feel like people downplay my anxiety and brush it off as nothing, but it’s everything to me. I think the best approach is to acknowledge the person’s struggle. Toxic positivity will just make that person not want to come to you for help next time.”
It’s clear that toxic positivity has a damaging effect - it can make people feel dismissed, lonely and frustrated. When people are already struggling, these are the last feelings they need.
How to practise helpful positivity
Helpful positivity should try and lift people up when they're struggling, without ignoring or denying the struggle. Having a positive outlook when it comes to mental health shouldn't ignore that sometimes our mental health does make us sad or stressed. It’s helpful to acknowledge these feelings so people don’t feel bad for feeling bad.
So, what does helpful positivity sound like? How can you acknowledge the negatives but still be optimistic?
Here are a few examples of helpful positivity when it comes to mental health:
“That sounds difficult for you. Is there any way I can help you?” - This is a good way to respond to someone who is struggling. Even if the situation seems like nothing to you, it feels difficult for them. It’s important to try not to make people feel embarrassed or invalid when they open up.“
Why does this worry you?” - Questions help people open up. Short statements like “just don’t worry” are conversation killers. Try and create a discussion, it will help you understand and help the person speak openly.
“It’s normal for you to be sad in this situation.” - We often try and push away/distract from negative emotions because they make us uncomfortable. However, being sad, stressed, drained etc. is part of being human. In many situations, it’s a completely normal response. Reassure the person struggling that it’s okay to feel this way. A simple “don’t be sad!” only reinforces the idea that sadness is something we should avoid at all costs.
“Is there something that would make you happy right now?” - This gives the person a choice. You’re not pushing their negative feelings away for them, but offering a distraction or ‘pick-me-up’.
There’s no perfect script to follow when it comes to helpful positivity. The most important things are to really listen, support, and encourage.
How to be honest about positivity
If you feel like people use ‘toxic positivity’ when it comes to your mental health, it’s important to be honest. What is it that you find harmful? What would you prefer to hear? Try writing it down if you can’t think straight away. It can be awkward or difficult addressing this with people, but most of the time people think they’re just being helpful! The people that care about you will want to become more helpful.
Am I using 'toxic positivity'?
If you’ve read this blog and realised sometimes you use ‘positive’ phrases which might not be very helpful for people - that’s okay! It doesn't make you a bad or harmful person. The truth is, we’ve all done it at some point. But try not to dwell on it. The only reason we should focus on what we’ve said in the past is to apologise if we think we’ve upset someone or learn from it and try something different in the future. We can all always improve.
Where to get help
If you are struggling with your mental health, have a look at our find help page for tips and suggestions on where to get help.