When positive is negative

An article on the downside of being too upbeat caught my attention recently, and I bring up the topic to mull it over with you.

The author, Anna Goldfarb, told of a time when a friend shared that she had received some upsetting medical news. Goldfarb had recently used an encouraging phrase with a different friend who was nervous about an upcoming business presentation: “You got this.” But when she used it a second time in response to a worrying diagnosis, her words didn’t bring comfort. Instead, they caused her the friend to withdraw. She goes on to quote psychotherapist Whitney Goodman,* who calls having an unhelpful cheerful attitude “dismissive positivity.”

Goodman suggests better ways to respond when someone is in pain. From the article:

Instead of saying, “You’ll get over it,” to someone in distress, say something to impart validation and hope: “This is hard. You’ve done hard things before and I believe in you.”
“Think happy thoughts!” becomes, “It’s probably pretty hard to be positive right now. I’m putting out good energy into the world for you.”
“Everything happens for a reason!” is updated to, “This doesn’t make sense right now. We’ll sort it all out later.”

This rings true for me, and I think that reworking each of these “dismissively positive” reactions is valuable. When we’re in a bad way, being greeted by relentless cheerfulness can make us feel like we’re not being seen or heard, and the contrast between someone else’s chirpiness and our dark feelings can emphasize and exaggerate just how low our current situation is.

We can all probably downvote dismissive positivity, and the smile that lacks real empathy. But what’s your view on the effectiveness of random positivity? Not some chipper person looking through you, failing to see your pain, but a view of some happiness that’s entirely independent of you. Would it be likely to make you focus on just how far from happy you are yourself, or could such a smile coax one from you, and help you on the way to feeling better? This is the sort of thing I have in mind:


I feel like I’ve read somewhere that as a species we have a tendency to mirror expressions that we see on the faces of others, but I can’t lay hands on the source of this idea at the moment. Can anyone help me out? I know that looking at this little one with a big grin definitely makes me smile, but I’m not currently starting from a low place. What do you think?


*Goodman can be found on Instagram @sitwithwhit.

[Image: Henrik Sorensen, hellodoktor.com]

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