Depression, as I have experienced it, is not a feeling of sadness. Instead, it’s an abyss of nothingness. When I am depressed, there is no joy or sadness. There is only apathy and disinterest. It is anathema to who I am, an otherwise energetic and passionate person. Hiding my depression over the years has largely consisted of my exuding and reflecting merciless positivity. Like any substance, even water, positivity can be poisonous. At excessive levels, positivity becomes toxic.
In her work as a licensed psychotherapist, Whitney Hawkins Goodman, LMFT, has encountered this phenomena of so-called toxic positivity and written about it extensively. The simple table she created (and shared on her Instagram) encapsulates the concept, and the solution, eloquently.
Talking about our feelings can be challenging. Hearing someone share their mental health story about depression or anxiety can be uncomfortable. However, it is imperative that we resist the urge to gloss over their feelings, because they make us uneasy. Telling someone who is facing a hard time to, in essence, “cheer up!” is more than unhelpful; it’s dangerous. Does this mean that you have to engage with everyone’s feelings all the time? No, it doesn’t. One of the best things you can do for someone is to be honest with them about the limits of your capacity to do emotional labor.* However, dismissing or minimizing their feelings or invalidating their experience doesn’t help. Saying things like, “No, you don’t mean that! You don’t really want to kill yourself!” or, “You just need to have a positive attitude!” only tells them that you haven’t heard what they are saying.
Validation and hope are the antidote to toxic positivity. If you don’t know what to say, tell the other person that you care about them. Let them know that they are seen. Validate them by affirming that their feelings are real. Even if you believe that their fears or anxieties are unwarranted, their feelings about them still exist. Ask what support they are getting for the situation in which they are in. Support them in reaching out for help. You don’t have to have all the answers, or even a single answer. Just be present and let them know that they are not alone.
*If you find yourself in a position where you do not have the physical or emotional energy to hold space for a person who is experiencing depression or anxiety, tell them kindly. Say, authentically, that you do not have the capacity to support them at this moment. Then, help them identify someone or someplace where they can get the help that they need. Being honest about your own capacity to do productive emotional labor is one of the most compassionate things you can do.