5 Things Not to Say When Things Get Hard

By Jessica Migala |

Toxic positivity — being relentlessly optimistic in the face of grief — can be emotionally damaging. Here’s how to erase it from your vocabulary.

older woman holding hands with a younger adult

No one’s always happy, of course. And yet, in a culture that prioritizes positivity and often conveys the message that being happy should be our ultimate goal, it can feel as if you need to perpetually put on a brave, positive face — no matter how big the problem or distressing the situation.

“Our society puts a premium on being happy all the time. ’Being positive’ is often this blanket state of being upbeat no matter what. It’s the belief that the best way to cope with a negative situation is to put a positive spin on it,” says Natalie Dattilo, Ph.D., a clinical health psychologist and mental health educator with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Unfortunately, forcing ourselves to be happy can actually be a form of denial, she says. And what’s worse, forcing others to be happy — showering them with positivity when the situation is actually negative — can be “invalidating, inauthentic, and even insulting,” she says. In fact, acknowledging hard feelings is healthy and helps us forge connection with one another.

“Emotionally healthy people acknowledge and experience the full-range of emotions,” says Kirby L. Wycoff, Psy.D., associate professor in the Counseling and Behavioral Health Department at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

Using phrases that push positivity isn’t all bad, of course — we don’t do so with the intention to harm, but to make someone (or ourselves) feel better. But it can be a fine line: Positivity gets toxic when it forces someone to ignore natural human emotion, says Wycoff. If you hold in feelings, chances are they’ll blow up somewhere else. (Imagine a shook-up soda can, says Wycoff. Sure, you can avoid getting sprayed by not opening it right now. But there’s still an explosion waiting to happen.)

The first step in changing a pattern of toxic positivity is self-awareness, Wycoff says. When you’re tempted to say one of the five phrases below — to someone else or yourself — ask yourself where that urge is coming from.

For example: Why do my (or their) feelings make me uncomfortable, so that I feel I have to say something to make my (or their) distress go away?

Then ask yourself what you can do to rectify it. If you’re having a conversation with another person, Wycoff recommends saying something like, “You know what? I think I told you something I didn’t mean. I meant to say, ‘It sounds like you’re struggling and it’s really hard.’”

Validating someone’s feelings shows that you’re a safe person to have this sort of experience with. Get started rooting out toxic positivity by watching out for these seemingly happy — but actually harmful — phrases:

1. “Look on the bright side!”

In even our darkest experiences, there are lessons that you may feel grateful for. But that can come with time — it does not have to be now. “Trying to look on the bright side when there’s no obvious bright side can make you just feel worse,” says Dattilo. “It brings us down, because it prevents us from accepting what is and dealing with it.”

Acknowledging that a particular experience is difficult and the emotions it raises are tough to go through isn’t pleasant — it’s work. But it’s necessary work for developing and maintaining coping skills, she says.

2. “What’s meant to be will be.”

While it’s true that there are many things that we can’t control, this is a very passive way of framing problems and difficult situations, says Dattilo. “Being more active and intentional about how you choose to cope with the situation is more empowering and healthier,” she says.

The phrase sounds like you’re doing a good job of accepting negative emotions, but in fact, it prevents you from taking the next step, which is identifying if there is something in your control and thinking about what actions you can take to improve things.

3. “It’ll all be okay”

Blanket positive statements like this (another version is “It’s going to be fine”) are toxic because they imply that pain is something that can be brushed aside. It’s an attitude or belief that can emerge from how you were raised, says Wycoff. As a child, your parents may have responded to sad or difficult events — the death of a pet, say — by telling you “it’ll all be okay” and then trying to move on.

While the intention there was probably to protect the younger you from distress, the dismissal teaches you over time to internalize the message that icky feelings are not okay. Over time, she says, “we become intolerant to distressing feelings.”

4. “Be grateful for the time you had with them”

This advice may be used to try to comfort someone after the loss of a loved one. But in fact, “You’re telling someone that the relationship they had was not important or didn’t matter, and that they’re not allowed to grieve,” Wycoff says. “That’s the opposite message we want to send.”

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Be particularly careful about implying that when the loved one who has died was elderly, the grief should be less — the “it was his time to go” approach. Older adults are often not given appropriate space to grieve after a friend or partner dies, says Wycoff. Grief isn’t lessened just because the loss was expected. Instead of trying to counter sadness with upbeat messages, acknowledge it and sympathize.

5. “Cheer up!”

“There’s an idea that if something feels bad, it must be wrong,” says Dattilo. And many of us react with a need to somehow “fix” the negative emotion right away. But it’s natural for humans to feel sad, scared, bored, or angry.

“Those negative emotions might be the most appropriate thing to feel in the moment,” Dattilo says. “Layering on guilt or shame [by pushing positivity] makes someone feel worse.”   

It’s not necessary to dismiss a negative emotion fast and move on. Sometimes the best thing is to feel it.

One last piece of advice: If you’ve been saying these things your entire life, don’t beat yourself up now. Give yourself grace and do the best you can moving forward. “We don’t want to shame ourselves for past actions, but embrace the opportunity for change,” says Wycoff.

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