'Toxic Positivity' Is Harmful To Those With Mental Illness

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Julia Meslener for Scary Mommy and FPG/ Debrocke/ClassicStock/Getty

I have bipolar 2. In other words: sometimes my brain breaks.

But kids don’t come with labels, and bipolar 2 is often a slowly developing illness. When I was a child, mine looked like severe depression and anxiety. I was that kid chewing her cuticles bloody over a test, or crying for no reason, or thinking she had no friends until she honestly didn’t.

I didn’t get a lot of help over this, and the help I did get typically came in the form of what we call “toxic positivity.” Psychology Today explains that toxic positivity is the idea that “keeping positive, and keeping positive only, is the right way to live your life. It means only focusing on positive things and rejecting anything that may trigger negative emotions.”

Whitney Goodman, an Instagram-famous therapist trained in trauma who works out of Miami, Florida, shared a post about replacing toxic positivity phrases with more realistic ones.

I heard these toxic phrases a lot as a child. I especially heard, “You’ll get over it!” and “Things could be worse!” As you can imagine, this did not cure my mental illness. It did, in fact, make everything worse. That’s because, as Psychology Today says, when you avoid paying attention to negative emotions, you say they aren’t important. “While you are trapped in this cycle, these emotions become bigger and more significant as they remain unprocessed.”

Moreover, when you’re mentally ill, you feel unheard, unloved, and guilty. Everyone else can “get over it.” Everyone else sees that “things could be worse.” Why can’t you?

A child can’t think through these things. Adults can. And it’s adults who can suffer the most from them, and who inadvertently dole out the most damage to one another.

Part of what makes a mental illness a mental illness is, generally, the inability to think your way out of it. You can, through serious effort and years of cognitive behavioral therapy, learn to recognize dangerous thoughts, answer them, and continue. But this only works for some people (its efficacy varies by disorder, with the highest success rates in anxiety disorders, and some of the lowest in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, according to data published in Cognitive Therapy Research).

So telling people who suffer from anxiety “good vibes only” doesn’t do a goddamn thing except make them feel stupid. Maybe you can embrace “good vibes only.” But they can’t. Their brain doesn’t work like that.

Toxic positivity reinforces the blame and shame cycle of mental illness. When we tell people to “Just be positive!” we make the assumption that they are capable of just being positive if they tried hard enough. Ergo, those of us with mental illness could be better, if only we tried harder. Our illness becomes our fault, because we don’t try. You become morally superior (because your brain “works”) and we become morally inferior (because we’re neurodivergent).

That’s some hardcore bullshit right there. Instead, Goodman says, you can say, “I know there’s a lot that could go wrong. What could go right?” This enforces our feelings. We feel heard. We feel validated. We feel like we’re not to blame. Then it helps us think of other, better scenarios.

Here’s another one people love to sling at one another, a really damaging one: “Everything happens for a reason!” Nope. What you’re saying to someone with a mental illness: life is, in general, actually a level playing field, and everything’s fair, and we all suffer, so suck it up, buttercup, because it all evens out in the end.

NO. No, it fucking doesn’t. Some of us walk around all the time unable to trust our own thoughts. Don’t tell us that there’s some cosmic reason that happens. Life is not the Suffering Olympics, and when you tell us everything happens for a reason, you’re saying everyone gets a medal. We don’t want a fucking medal. We want you to say (to paraphrase Goodman): “Look. Shit doesn’t make sense.” Don’t tell us there’s a reason for it.

And do not, do not, fucking tell us to “just get over it.” We can’t. I can’t miraculously “get over” being bipolar. Someone can’t “get over” having social anxiety; they can’t “get over” panicking about spiders. You can’t “get over” a panic attack. They just happen. You’re assuming again that we can get over, and we’re not trying hard enough, and it’s our fault that we’re mentally ill.

Instead of this toxic positivity, Goodman says we should offer something like, “This is hard. You’ve done hard things before, and I believe in you.” It affirms our difficulty, but at the same time, it gives us hope. It doesn’t wallow. It tells us we can. But it doesn’t tell us that we have to.

Yeah, you mean well. We know you mean well. But you aren’t helping. If you really want to help, take a look at Goodman’s list. Memorize it. Stop slinging these phrases around and start using the more validating and affirming ones instead. Married to someone who’s mentally ill? Tape them to your goddamn refrigerator. Only when we stop blaming and shaming people — even inadvertently — can we help set them on the path to wellness. We need cheerleaders.

That means you.

So shut up with your good vibes. In this space, as Goodman says, “All vibes are welcome.”

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