“When you can’t look on the bright side, I will sit with you in the dark.” - Lewis Carroll Alice in Wonderland

After my husband died four years ago, I realized that my ringtone from Spamalot, “Always Look at the Bright Side of Life,” had to be changed.  Ya think?  I could not find brightness in the aftermath of grief so I changed my tune to Avicii’s “So Wake Me Up When It’s All Over,” which better resonated with my shattered heart.  I knew I needed to embrace the pain of grief wholly in order to find a new life and this tune suited me.

As I painstakingly slogged through grief, I discovered the pitfalls and downsides of positivity.  Norman Vincent Peale’s 1950’s The Power of Positive Thinking, was good on paper.  Having a positive outlook is surely effective.  I knew that it was beneficial not to catastrophize and it was especially helpful not to look too far down the scary road of the future.  I recognized I had to keep that carrot of “a glimmer of hope,” in my mind in order to work through my loss. 

But in truth, I think positivity does not engender empathy.  People who asked me to “stay strong,” or “you’ll get over it,” or “think good thoughts,” were so far off base, that it annoyed me.  These thoughtless utterances were judgy of my feelings, they dismissed my emotions, and they didn’t validate my heartache.  The insensitive comments indicated I should not be honest about how I truly feel.  Saying “just snap out of it,” connotes that I am weak, and I should have better control over my feelings. 

Abusers of trivial positivity make it all about themselves.  They don’t want to hear any bad thoughts.  It’s what I have termed “La Boheme mentality,” referring to the character Mimi or in my terms Me! Me! from Puccini’s opera!  Those who deny others feelings, demand only good vibes because they don’t want to face the negativity that comes with real life.  They impose their own fantasy of happy-go-lucky which does not allow room for kindness and empathy.

Trivializing positivity is hurtful because it negates and invalidates our emotions.  This one-sided view denies the trauma, marginalizes the sadness, and dismisses compassion. We have all endured sadness during our lifetimes.  Asking someone to dismiss their sadness is unconscionable.  There is no way to sprinkle some happy fairy dust on someone to make their sorrow disappear.  Accepting others feelings and validating them engenders compassion for both you and the one craving that compassion. 

Here are a few examples of how to shift one’s view of trivializing positivity towards a more compassionate understanding of others:

Instead of saying: “Just be happy.”

Try saying: “This situation sucks.  I am so sorry you have to go through it.

Instead of saying: “Power through and get over it!”

Try saying: “I hear you.  This is so tough.  I am here to help you through.”

Instead of saying: “Think good thoughts.”

Try saying: “It is really OK for you to feel like this.”

Instead of saying: “He’s in a better place.”

Try saying: “I will try to help you through this intense loss.”

Instead of saying: “Just think, you’ll find someone else soon.”

Try saying: “I am so sorry that you have experienced this terrible loss.”

Instead of saying: “You’ll get through it. Be strong.”

Try saying: “I know you feel sad now, but you have felt that way before, and there is hope that you will feel OK.

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