We’ve probably all encountered having a friend come to us in need of emotional support and not knowing what to say at all, at least once. As helpful as we may genuinely want to be, it’s natural to be at a loss for words or completely stumped on how you can help. There’s a tendency for us to spew empty epitaphs or encouraging words without really thinking them through. It’s easy to spit out things like “kaya mo yan!” or “don’t worry about it, it’s nothing.” But often, they actually end up more harmful to those we’re trying to help.
A lot of the time, saying things like these can come off as dismissive. It might, to the other person, feel as if you weren’t really listening or you were demeaning their struggles. This has come to be termed as “toxic positivity”. It is the forcing of positive attitudes or perspectives on people who maybe just want a shoulder to cry on or someone to tell them that everything really does suck. It’s spinning everything in a positive and surmountable way instead of facing things constructively and admitting what the difficulties are.
Saying something like “just be positive!” to those confiding in you with problems can be wrongly interpreted in a vast number of ways — from making light of the issue to seeming callous and uncaring or even to giving them false hope. The temptation to give in to this “inspiring” kind of positivity is so strong because we always want to be that person who brings our friends back up. But perhaps a more productive response would be something along the lines of: “I know there’s a lot that could go wrong. Let’s think about what could go right, and maybe how to get there.”
It acknowledges the pain that the other person is going through, it validates their worries and their fears, but it still provides a way to help them work through their thoughts. Counselors suggest that the best approach, when put in this situation, is to aim for a response that embodies hope and validation, in place of aggressive and toxic positivity. When done so, the support you are able to offer becomes more keenly felt and often better welcomed.
Whitney Hawkins Goodman, who heads The Collaborative Counselling Center, suggests a number of other phrases to replace those reeking with toxic positivity. She proposes that instead of urging someone: “You’ll get over it!” you might try: “This is hard. You’ve done hard things before and I believe in you.” Or replace the commonly said “good vibes only!” with “all vibes are welcome here.”
The graphic below shows the complete list of her recommendations:
Another equally important consideration is that we can ask those seeking help what they’re looking for. Sometimes people are only looking to rant, other times they want advice. It’s difficult to discern which unless they tell you, or you ask them. Gaining clarity on what they need the most at that particular moment is the best way to know how to help.
There are so many different ways we can ‘be there’ for a person, so perhaps we should stop resorting to saying simple things like “just be positive”.
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