Toxic Positivity & Helping Someone Who is Struggling.

Toxic Positivity — This feels like a relatively new concept.

However, it is something that has been around for a looonnng time. So, maybe we are just now making the NAME (a little more) mainstream.

I will say though, Toxic Positivity is more relevant now than ever before!

Getting off Track for a Moment — If You are in a Hurry, Skip to Toxic Positivity Below

Ok, don’t make fun of me… but, I am a long time fan of Britney Spears. I know, I know. People either love her. Or, love to hate her. I’m in the first group. Fun fact, I met my husband on Halloween while dressed in a school girl outfit inspired by Britney Spears’ …Baby, One More Time music video.

Kristi (dressed like Britney) & Brandon circa 10/31/2003

Getting more side tracked with a random story: When I worked in the hospital, an intern once said, “You really like Britney Spears, don’t you?!” It was in response to the music playing on my phone at my desk. Basically every Britney Spears song ever produced is on my phone.

This brings me to two very important points: 1) #FreeBritney. 2) “Don’t you know that you’re toxic?” {singing} – Britney Spears, Toxic lyrics.

See what I did there? I connected the dots in my head of Britney Spears and Toxic positivity. If you ever what to know how someone with ADHD thinks, this is an accurate representation!

Back to the topic at hand…

Toxic Positivity

Whether you realize it or not, it is highly likely you have experienced toxic positivity before. From the well-meaning parent or bestie, we’ve all heard toxic positive phrases spoken to us at one point in time. Some examples of what I mean by this:

  • You’re fine. Stop pouting.
  • Everything happens for a reason. 
  • It isn’t that bad.

Now, I feel like I need to insert a disclaimer here. I am not perfect. Therefore, I have absolutely used these phrases (and more). So, in defense of myself and everyone else in the world, let’s remember where these words originated…

Where Did Toxic Positivity Originate?

The short answer: it is something that has been taught to us.

So, while I could be mad at my mom and dad for using these phrases – in a less than comforting way – when I was a kid. The reality is, they had them to spoken to them (as in my parents’ parents said these same things) during a difficult time(s) in their life.

This is when we need to set aside the false belief of, “Well, I turned out just fine.” As much as I’d like to discuss this right now, we need to table it for another day! The short answer to that: “No, you are not ‘just fine.’”

Now, regardless of where the words originated, they were still hurtful. Before you stop listening (reading) what I have to say, think of it this way…

If we were taught unhealthy ways to react to other people struggling, we don’t know how to help people in a healthy manner. In other words, you were struggling and your parents did not model a healthy way to comfort you, therefore you do not know what it looks/sounds like.

Of course, this does not excuse the behavior. We do need accountability. And, it is important that we remember we are a constant work in progress.

Just because we were taught (or not taught) something, such as a knee jerk reaction to get frustrated when a kid is crying, doesn’t mean we get a free pass to continue this behavior.

We need to continue to learn and grow as individuals. And, this includes learning better ways to comfort our kids, friends, family, etc…

You can say what we need now is a case of…

When you know better, do better.

Maya Angelou

We know now that these types of phrases are actually helpful – no matter how well-intentioned they are. And, it is time to do better.

Helping Without Hurting

What CAN you do to help someone who is struggling? Especially when the only “comforting” words you know are ones that are considered toxic positivity?

Start by asking the person this: “What words do you need to hear the most right now.”

They may not have any words that come to mind and that is ok. It may be your role is to not say anything right now.

Listen. Not to reply. Just listen.

Many times when we are struggling, we have so much going through our minds. And, we just need to “talk it out.” But, when the conversation is overrun by the other person – not going through the struggle – we aren’t able to fully express ourselves and that hinders our ability to feel better.

If you are listening, make peace with long moments of silence. If someone is having a hard time, it takes a lot of courage to speak what is on their mind. And, this can mean they need a little extra time to find that courage to find the right words and express their thoughts. The long pause is not necessarily a time for you to interject your thoughts.

If we aren’t able to express ourselves and process all our emotions, they get bottled up. Read more about what I mean here in this article, You’re Fine. Stop Crying.

  • Only give the person space if they ask for it. Many times when someone is struggling, they need help. But don’t know how to ask for it. Or, they don’t even know what to ask for. In these cases, others might feel as though they are burdening the person struggling.
    • However, that is not always the case. As an example, during my deepest, darkest moments very important people in my life “gave me space.” While it was well-intentioned it was also difficult to reach out and ask for what I needed because I felt like I was being the burden to them.
  • Offer specific ways to help. If we are talking about your friend or family member is struggling through the type of crisis that makes it difficult to manage normal day-to-day functions, then make sure to not burden them with the question, “what can I do to help?” Instead, offer two or three specific things you can offer, “I am going to the grocery store later today, I will pick up some extra groceries for you while I am there. Let me know if you have anything specific you’d like me to bring. Otherwise, I will grab some essentials.”
    • Alternatively, you may need to take charge. For example, someone who is in the deep waters of grief or depression may have a hard time with self-care. You might need to head over to their house and say, “how about you go take a shower while I make you lunch.” As someone who has personally struggled with both, I have absolutely been hungry because I did have the energy to make lunch, let alone the mental capacity to think about what to make for a meal.
    • If the laundry is piled up, the dishes are going unwashed, and the house doesn’t look kept up to the way it typically does… well, it is safe to say the reassuring answers to questions such as, “how are you doing?” are mostly likely to placate the person asking the question and are not a true indication of how they are actually feeling.

One last random thought on Everything Happens for a Reason…

I truly am a believer in “Everything happens for a reason.” My personal belief is that the Universe has a big plan in store for us. And, while heartbreaking events can and do take place, it is all for a greater reason.

Most often, we don’t know what that reason is in the moment, but somewhere, something good is coming from our worst moments.

Now, don’t jump down my throat here. I am not saying anyone deserves to struggle. No one deserves to be murdered. Just as no one deserves to experience hunger and/or food insecurity or any other tragic event/experiences life can bring.

Instead, I believe those things open the door for the good of humanity to shine. For the mom who lost her son in a shooting, she becomes an activist and helps to prevent further sons and daughters from being murdered. For the kid who grew up with food insecurity, they learn powerful lessons related to humanitarian work and grow up to help others who struggle with similar problems they had while growing up.

Think about it this way, would someone have really become an activist to help reduce crime rates if they hadn’t been touched deeply by crime within their personal life? Even if it isn’t the mom who started the activist group, the story could inspire a close friend, family member, or even member of the community indirectly touched by the story.

Here Comes the Caveat…

While I strongly believe the Universe has a bigger plan for us, and our struggles help to prepare us for the future, now is not the time to discuss it. When someone is in the depths of their struggle, it is not helpful to remind them that everything happens for a reason.

I’m personally holding up a mirror and reminding myself of this… because I have been guilty of it as well. But, it is a great opportunity to enact the whole “know better, do better” concept. Instead of being upset that I didn’t do better in the past, I am focusing on being better now and in the future. My hope is you can do the same.

That’s all for now!

XOXO Kristi

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