Those who enter into the human service fields quickly learn that helping individuals is not about necessarily fixing them but more so guiding them and walking with them. It would be so nice to be able to magically make the hurt go away or the problem vanish but the reality is problems never go away in life. Life is about coping and overcoming issues and learning to live with them. So when someone appears with a fix it all approach to life, then that particular someone should be avoided or at least not enter into the helping fields.
Individuals who think a phrase or few words can make someone forget the love of their life, or something extremely important obviously have not loss anything important yet. Sometimes life teaches the hard lessons for those even in the helping professions. Many times, the solution is listening and sojourning, perhaps even offering a few coping strategies, but never is their a solution or a fix to loss or pain in life. When something bad happens, the loss of a family member, the loss of a job, or the loss of a pet, the pain is real. The pain is real because what is lost mattered. No words can fix that except a return to the pre-loss state. In this world, there is no return to the pre-loss state, so one must learn to cope and adjust to the loss. Those in the helping fields, counseling, human services and social work understand that listening, offering solicited advice and sojourning are how one performs one’s professional duty.
When one tries to fix, then one ultimately misses the importance of the loss. When one tries to fix, one obviously has never lost anything oneself. Hence any short cuts or attempts to lessen the loss or invoke recovery goes against the healing process of grief itself. Many well intentioned individuals offer a plentitude of sayings or quotes to help fix, but these rarely help. Professionals know, or at least should know, that there is no magic word to heal loss itself.
One of the quick fixes that many employ is toxic positivity. This type of attitude is toxic because it is not real and does more damage to the griever or mourner. Instead it insults the loss, insults the pain, and ignores the reality. It hopes to make the situation lighter or less extreme but by doing so it becomes a lie. This type of lie stunts healing growth and disenfranchises the loss of the griever. Many times, “grief bullies” a term used in our blogs below, will attempt to enforce a false and toxic positivity or spin on a loss and become irritated when a mourner refuses to accept the silver lining. Hence it is important to identify what toxic positivity is, correct those who utilize it and remove it from anyone’s practice in grief counseling.
The article, “What Is Toxic Positivity?” by Chloe Carmichael looks the problems of toxic positivity not so just from the point of the griever but also the person who may employ it for one’s own life views. She states,
“Toxic positivity can sound like a confusing phrase at first: After all, positivity is supposed to be positive, right? However, just like even something as innocent and healthy-sounding as jogging can become toxic if taken to an extreme, so can positivity. Taken to an extreme, positivity becomes toxic and deprives us of the motivation to make healthy changes that the awareness of a negative, uncomfortable reality would otherwise stimulate us to make”
“What Is Toxic Positivity?”. Carmichael, C. (2021). Psychology Today
To access the full article, please click here
When individuals utilize toxic positivity they do so to protect themselves from hurt and pain. They do not wish to face the issue at hand so they attempt to silver coat everything. In doing so, they lose the true reality of life. They create a false veil of happiness. This silver lining attitude is not only false to the life narrative but can have harmful effects on the grieving process. In other cases, individuals may fear to face conflict, or wish to minimize discomfort because they do not wish to offend another person. This keeps many individuals in unhealthy relationships as they create alternative realities not anchored in reality. Many would rather exist in a false reality without conflict or anger. They see anger or emotion as something to be avoided at all costs, even to the point of giving up one’s own happiness.
Those who are trapped in this attitude need reminded gently that it is OK to be true to oneself. It is OK to sometimes express anger, or grief. In fact it is healthy to express these feelings and part of being a human being. Those who resort to avoidance or creating a false narrative harm themselves and also keep themselves trapped in horrible relationships and situations. Individuals need told they can express themselves but also need to be shown sometimes the reality and ugliness of human life and to accept it. By accepting it, one can finally move forward and find true solutions. If the truth is ignored with false positivity, then the problem will never receive the solution it needs.
Again, there are those who are not only victims of their own toxic positivity, but also victims of others hoping to impose their narratives on them. Individuals who try to cheer others up with pithy sayings when individuals are grieving are sharing a form of toxic positivity. The famous saying to make lemonaide when life gives you lemons is healthy advice, but if given in the acute and intense moment of grief, then it is very toxic. It ignores the “lemons”. It is important to acknowledge the “lemons” before one can heal. Others may remark that negativity only begets negativity, but they forget that sometimes one must first acknowledge the negativity before one can heal from it and find positivity. Imposing positivity too soon can be harmful to one’s healing process. Instead of trying to fix or present solutions, simply acknowledge the loss and listen. This is more helpful in the overall healing to a person than trying to fix them with an imposed positivity that is way too soon to help someone heal.
Hence while, “at least he or she…” or “he or she is in a better place” type comments are well intended, they can cause more damage than good. Avoid bully phrases as “good vibes only”, “it could be worse”, or “things happen for a reason” and replace them with ” I am here”, “bad things happen and how can I help”, or ” This must really be hard”.
Positivity is important in life but when it is forced to ignore reality or an issue it can be detrimental. Whether one is trying to sell it or buys it, it needs to be properly utilized. When in acute pain or in a bad situation, it is OK to be sad or mad and it is definitely OK to focus on it. Positive spins on bad situations are not needed when true solutions of facing the issue is needed.\
Please also review AICHP’s Grief Counseling Certification and see if it meets your academic and professional goals. The program is online and independent study and open to qualified professionals seeking a four year certification.
As certified grief counselors or anyone in the human service field, remember to be there not to fix a loss but to help one through it via acknowledgement and listening.
“Toxic Positivity—Why It’s Harmful and What to Say Instead”. Cherry, K. (2023). VeryWellMind. Access here
“Toxic Positivity: Definition, Examples And What To Say Instead”. Mona, B. Forbes Health. Access here
“What to know about toxic positivity”. Villines, Z. (2021). Medical News Today. Access here
“How Positivity Can Turn Toxic”. Davis, T. (2022). Psychology Today. Access here