Enough with All the Happy Talk

Toxic Positivity. Have you heard that term? It’s when people insist you look on the sunny side of things. “Your time will come.” “Don’t worry. You’ll get to have your baby.” “You just need to think positive.” “Look on the bright side.” “At least you have __________.”

So often people who say these things are trying to be helpful, but they are having the opposite effect. They are denying your right to feel however you need to feel. If you appear to be to be sad, angry or hopeless, it makes other people uncomfortable, so they try to put a happy spin on it. You had a miscarriage? You can try again. Your husband doesn’t want kids? He’ll change his mind. You can’t seem to get pregnant? You just need to relax. They make it sound like your negative attitude is to blame for your problems. If you just put on a happy face, everything will work out.

Yeah, sure.

Makes you want to scream, right?

That’s toxic positivity, which was the subject at Katy Seppi’s Chasing Creation podcast earlier this week. Her guests were life coaches Sadie T of Curiously Sadie [@curiously_sadie] and Carrie Hauskens, whose recent blog post on the subject inspired the podcast. I encourage you to read that post.  You’ll be shouting “Yeah!” “I know!” and “Bullshit!” along with her.

“I think it’s exhausting trying to stay positive all the time,” Hauskens said. She tends to be very honest about her infertility journey, which includes a miscarriage and a stillborn daughter. It makes people squirm. Her husband is also straightforward. He notes that the positive commenters have been thinking about this for a few minutes while they’ve been trying to have children for seven years.

“I don’t have to be optimistic,” Hauskens stressed.  

Sadie added that toxic positivity discounts what a person is feeling and what they have gone through. They’re kind of saying “It’s fine. Get over it.”

But grief doesn’t just disappear. It keeps coming back, and we need to talk about it. It’s not healthy to keep it in just to make our uncomfortable friends more comfortable.

The women agreed that in some cases you may need to spend less time with the people who keep spewing platitudes and look for others who understand what you’re going through, other childless people, for example.

So what should people say? It’s fine to just admit you don’t know what to say, Hauskens said. You can say, “I’m here for you” or “What can I do to help?” Just don’t try to correct the person’s feelings.

Just being there is enough, Seppi added.

Bottom line: Don’t tell me how I’m supposed to feel about not having children (or anything else). Let me feel my feelings and find my own way through them.

Does this ring any bells for you? It sure does for me. Have you experienced “toxic positivity?” How do you react? Please share in the comments.

More reading on the subject:

“Toxic Positivity is Real” by Simone M. Scully, Healthline.com, July 22, 2020.

“Toxic Positivity: Don’t Always Look on the Bright Side” by Konstantin Lukin, PhD., Psychology Today, Aug. 1, 2019

11 thoughts on “Enough with All the Happy Talk

  1. I like the term “toxic positivity.” It labels something that you can’t quite put your finger on. I don’t deal with this too much from others. Mostly because I am vague and matter of fact about my situation. Upfront. Without emotion.

    “It hasn’t happened for us.” Shrug. I don’t go into details about medical issues, or personal feelings. Without a tear in my eye no one seems to feel the need to beckon a rainbow.

    “Our marriage wasn’t strong enough then. Now that we are strong, it’s too late.” Also presented without emotion or meaty details. And harder for them to press for more info when your husband is standing nearby. It’s sort of uncomfortable. And when you are closer to 50 than you are 30, it’s hard for them to argue against Mother Nature.

    “We’re the type of people who just don’t look good on paper,” said to people who ask if we’ve considered adoption. I’m mostly talking about a year in our life where my husband made some bad choices and spent some time in jail (how little they know). But probably they think I’m referring to money and they drop it. After all, NO ONE would needle another person about their money. THAT would be rude!

    “Sure, dogs are great. But the are not really children, are they?” Spoken to someone who insists that we’re quite lucky to have such “wonderful” dogs in place of a baby. Asking them if they actually consider my black Lab mix to be the same level as their children is a zinger. Are they really going to admit that dumping the family dog off for a week at a boarding facility is the same as taking the kids to Disney?

    I do believe I experience Toxic Positivity in other ways. Excessive compliments about my home, business, hobbies and talents (and those damn dogs!). It’s sort of like when the “adults” are talking and then they glance over at the child sitting quietly on the nearby couch. “Ohhhhh, you! Aren’t you just the BEST basket weaver ever! I don’t know how you do it! And I LOVE that little necklace you are wearing. You are just the CUTEST! Tell me MORE about that sweet little dog of yours.” Smiling, fake eyes that dart around the room. Dart, dart, dart. Until someone more important comes along.

    I do it to myself. I’ve almost convinced myself a time or two that everything is just grand. But it’s not. Not having a child makes me question myself and my place in life. But I tell myself that it’s okay and it will get better. I don’t understand the way others treat me. It feels either dismissive or disrespectful. And I tell MYSELF that I’m being silly about it all. That I’m imagining things. I work HARD to find the positives in my life, but yet I still apologize to God that I do not have enough gratitude in my heart.

    The truth is I’m not allowing MYSELF to mourn these things. It’s not positive but it’s certainly toxic.

    Thank you for this platform, Sue. I often don’t know that I’m hurting until I begin typing. I am so glad you are here.

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    • Anon S, this comment is brilliant. I love the line “without a tear in my eye, no one seems to feel the need to beckon a rainbow.” And yes, sometimes we put the toxic positivity on ourselves. But I hope I don’t make you feel hurt every time. We are allow to feel our grief, anger, fear, etc., but we also need to acknowledge the cheerier moments. Thank you for your years of support.

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  2. Spot on, a very useful phrase. Thank you for giving me a phrase that means I can spot when this is happening in a conversation. I have had people say in the past “you are so lucky to be able to travel outside of school holidays”. I want to respond “well, get rid of your kids, and you too could travel when its cheaper”.

    I am not sure toxic positivity happens to me anymore. Family and friends know our story. Our days of trying to get pregnant are well behind us. Nobody talks to us about it anymore. But you are certainly right in that the grief is still around, I still have to live with being childless and need to talk (here) about it.

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  3. I never thought about toxic positivity in this way, but it rings very true. It seems like the cop-out for not knowing what to say, doesn’t it?

    I think a lot of people with feelings just want to be heard. I have expressed myself many times. I don’t want reassurance. Sometimes I just want you to listen.

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  4. I just suffered yet again another miscarriage, and the amount of “at least you know you can get pregnant” was ridiculous. Each time I got it, I wanted to throat punch the person. So instead I decided to make them feel as uncomfortable as they just made me. After my last miscarriage, I found out that no matter how many times I get pregnant, I have a gene mutation that does not allow my body to carry a fetus. So I have to be on special pills and bed rest the next time I get pregnant. Each time I got the “at least you can get pregnant,” I snapped back with, “What good does that do if my body won’t carry it?” They were always at a loss and just muttered “I was just trying to be hopeful” and I would respond “I don’t have much hope right now, a simple sorry is just fine.” I know I was harsh with my words, and I know they were trying to be supportive, but that kind of support when I am going through yet again another loss and yet again another round of tests just is not helpful. People need to realize that being hopeful for someone doesn’t get rid of their pain.

    I am hopeful now that I know what is wrong. I am hopeful because I finally have a doctor who is fighting for me and advocating for me. The pills I am on are not covered by insurance so she has been fighting the insurance company for me. I am hopeful that the next time I might be able to make it out of the first trimester.

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    • “At least you know you can get pregnant.” What a stupid thing for a person to say to you in your moment of loss. I think people say these things so they can feel like they’ve “helped” with their positive vibes. It’s crap.

      Reminds me of the time my SIL sat there complaining about her friend who was struggling to conceive. “I told her. ‘Seriously, Kelsey! You need to stop stressing and you WILL get pregnant.'” My SIL said this so smugly, which she could because she had six children of her own and had easy pregnancies with each one. I’ll bet her friend was so mad.

      Hugs to you.

      Like

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