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When ‘Good Vibes Only’ Goes Bad

There’s a reason we laugh when Always Look on the Bright Side of Life plays at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian — it’s absolutely absurd in the given setting.

And yet, it’s not unusual for someone to offer comfort to a loved one who’s truly struggling by saying something like, “Just be positive,” or, “Good vibes only — you’ll get over it!” The intention is nothing but kind, but as Miami-based psychotherapist Whitney Goodman, LMFT pointed out on Instagram last year, there are often much better ways to offer someone validation and hope. In fact, she considers the phrases above to be examples of “toxic positivity,” and I think that’s an insight that might rock a few well-meaning worlds.

I mean, I’m a pretty positive person who really does try to look on the bright side most of the time, but at the moment, as I wake up every morning to larger and scarier numbers of coronavirus cases, new shelter in place orders (and, just as frightening — the administration talking about lifting those orders prematurely), and the increasing awareness that our world will never be quite the same ever again (*takes a deep breath*), it’s obvious that we need more than good vibes to get through this.

So, what do we do instead, you ask? I’m not suggesting anyone wallow in the bad news, that’s for sure. And maybe it’s more important now than ever to remember that worrying doesn’t actually help anyone. But rather than ignore or dismiss the problems we’re facing, we can acknowledge them — and, when offering support to someone else, be willing to sit with them as they process it all, and remind them that you’re there to help them handle it. Let them know that it’s normal to have negative feelings when things are really shitty, and they don’t have to shove those feelings down or hide them — but that when they’re ready, you’ll be there to help them find some light and continue to process their emotions.

If you’re having a hard time envisioning just how to do that, you’ll definitely want to check out Whitney’s post on toxic positivity — and if you’re anything like me, you’ll find a LOT of her Instagram posts (@sitwithwhit) incredibly helpful. Because, at the end of the day, don’t we all want the tools and language needed to better be there for the ones we love?

Looking back, can you recall examples of toxic positivity being used? And do you think you’ve got some better options at the ready now? —Kristen

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  1. Thank you for the important reminder. My first instinct when someone is hurting (myself included) is to want to make it better as quickly as possible. More often than not, fixing things is not within my power. I have learned the value of saying, “That is so hard. I’m sorry you’re going through this. I’m here for you.” And if I know the person well, a hug or an arm around the shoulder. Of course, right now, that physical contact is not an option. Ugh! Now I feel sad. And that’s okay. I’ll allow myself to acknowledge this genuine emotion. When the wave passes, I will look on the bright side…and there is much to smile about, even now.