Enough with the Toxic Positivity, Please

While grieving each of my pregnancy losses, I was bombarded with phrases like these:

  • “At least you could get pregnant.”
  • “There will be another one.”
  • “Just keep trying. One of them will stick.”
  • “You can always adopt.”
  • “Maybe it’s for the best.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “Don’t worry, it’s so common!”
  • “At least it happened early.”
  • “It’ll happen when the time is right.”
  • “Everything will be OK.”
  • “You’ll come out of this stronger.”

On the surface, these all sounded like “nice” things to say, so I was confused when everything in me wanted to slap the people saying them. Then I learned a term that explains phrases like these (and why they are so triggering): Toxic positivity.

In an episode titled “What’s Negative about Positivity?” on the Terrible, Thanks for Asking podcast (which is brilliant), Nora McInerny defines toxic positivity as “the denial or suppression of emotions that are considered negative, emotions that are painful.” Her guest, Susan David, says toxic positivity is “an avoidant coping strategy.” She explains: “When you are telling other people just to be positive, you are basically saying to them, ‘my comfort is more important than your reality’ and ‘there is no space for your humanness.’”

Yes. This is exactly it. I felt like my losses made other people feel uncomfortable, and to deal with that discomfort, they word-vomited a bunch of platitudes that left me feeling unseen and misunderstood. In their book, There is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love, Dr. Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell write, “There’s a fine line between helping someone feel less daunted, and belittling their very real, warranted fear and anger with ‘you’ll be fine.’” That’s what it is-belittling.

What I’ve learned is that when people use phrases like this in response to tragedy, it is a reflection of them, not me. They are reluctant to accept that, as Nora says, “Sometimes life is really hard. Sometimes the silver lining isn’t there.” They cover up their fears and anxieties with phrases that make them feel better. They really aren’t thinking of me at all.

To clarify: I don’t think there is any malicious intent in the hearts of those doling out platitudes. It’s a very human thing to want to believe what the clichés say. As psychiatrist Ralph Lewis wrote in Psychology Today, “It’s common for people to believe that ‘everything happens for a reason’ and that things are ‘meant to be.’ The need to feel in control contributes greatly to our propensity to believe that the universe is governed by a higher power with a higher purpose.”

I think this is why some of us who have experienced tragedy even bombard ourselves with toxic positivity. We want there to be a reason. We want there to be a bright side. We read as many positive affirmations as possible, even tell ourselves we are “doing better.” We (try to) rush through grief because that seems to be what everyone wants us to do. You only have to spend five minutes on social media to see the reality of this-all of us are engaged in what Nora calls a “performance of happiness.”

But, even if it’s scary, it’s important for all of us-those experiencing the tragedy, and those attempting to offer comfort-to dig beneath the toxic positivity and get in touch with our real feelings. As Susan David says, “When we show up to our difficult emotions and when we try to recognize the value that’s being signposted from them, that is what helps us to be adaptive human beings.”

Darwin described emotions as “functional.” In this way, there shouldn’t be good or bad ones. We should accept all emotions, without judgment or labels. We should stop trying to talk anyone (or ourselves) out of sadness or grief. We need to encourage people to just sit with their pain. We need to say, simply, “I’m so sorry for your loss. I am here.” And then we need to really mean that. We need to be there, with the pain. Emotion is not the bogeyman we think it is.

This post was written by Kim Hooper, co-author of All the Love: Healing Your Heart and Finding Meaning After Pregnancy Loss.

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Originally published at https://alltheloveafterloss.com.

Supporting and empowering people through pregnancy loss. All the Love: Healing Your Heart and Finding Meaning After Pregnancy Loss (Turner Publishing, 2021).

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