We lie to ourselves, quite often.
We paint over our own trauma with toxic positivity and pretend that we’re okay. What we are feeling isn’t real; it’s in our heads.
We stay in a situation, ignore and bury the red flags furiously. Don’t get us wrong, having a positive outlook isn’t a bad thing. It's when you have a ‘good vibes only’ approach and adamantly discard all negative emotions in life, that’s when you ‘brightside’ or ‘whitelight’ yourself, explain wellness experts. By doing so, you strip yourself the support you need to cope with what you are facing. By denying, invalidating the existence of painful, ugly and messy emotions, you end up causing yourself severe psychological damage as these feelings remain unresolved.
You must have caught yourself saying ‘it’s not that bad’, when it really is that bad for you. You downplay your emotions and think ‘it’s just a phase’ and ‘it’s only in my head’. You would have heard and maybe told yourself these toxic words of comfort often: “There are others who have it worse” and “Cheer up”. These are just a few other examples of this brightsiding, or even whitelighting as The Elephant Journal, recently referred to it as. Not to sound clichéd, but we forget, that it is really okay to not be okay.
As we do this to ourselves, we dole out the same treatment to others. As experts explain, this whole process is a manner of invalidating feelings, suppressing them to the point that they begin to control you and are unregulated.
The dark side of brightsiding
I hate hope.
That was the beginning of American author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich’s essay that became the book Brightsided, a decade ago. After being diagnosed with cancer, she was flooded with gratingly cheerful and inspirational words. Everyone meant well, for sure. But as she said, this overtly chirpy outlook, did not cure her cancer. Her rage was in solidarity for those people with cancer, who could no longer be told comfortingly, “Well, at least you don’t have cancer.”
“We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles," Ehrenreich had written. “Both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking."
It’s jarring for people, says Rebecca Ford, a Dubai-based Canadian expat, whose nerves were on edge every time she received words for comfort after her father’s sudden death last year. “Everyone meant well. But it was suffocating to be constantly told ‘Be strong for your mother’ and ‘At least he died peacefully, so many at his age don’t go that way’. Worst, ‘Don’t cry. He wouldn’t like to see you cry’. It’s like you’re already dealing with grief, and then people with best intentions come along and make it worse, and you can’t even be rude to them,” she says.
If you keep glazing over someone’s trauma and hurt with positivity when they’re in their most vulnerable phase, they feel as if their feelings are being dismissed, explains Priya Cima, a Dubai-based wellness expert from the mental health platform Chearful.com. They could feel dismissed, resentful, angry, or even a sense of guilt. Sometimes they begin to think ‘Should I really be upset’, she explains. The person starts believing that they’re not worthy enough and get submerged by negative emotions. They could also feel ashamed, as if their feelings are “wrong”. They develop a layer of inauthenticity, by forcing themselves to be happy in a social situation, which is far more harmful for their mental health.
By “brightsiding” a person, you are invalidating their feelings, trauma and indirectly telling them, ‘You don’t matter’, says Cima. Essentially, you are unconsciously pressurising a person to feel differently.
By “brightsiding” a person, you are invalidating their feelings, trauma and indirectly telling them, ‘You don’t matter’
Toxic cheer at the workplace
Andy Fieldhouse, a wellness expert and a Dubai-based team-relationship coach, explains brightsiding in the context of the workspace as well. Sometimes people don’t want to believe that something can be less than perfect, he says. They don’t want to see the ugliness of a problem, and believe that it can be damaging. It’s also because others are uncomfortable with witnessing any form of pain or discomfort and hurriedly want to get it out of the way. For some people, it also means, don’t rock the boat. Let things be.
When a person is being open and vulnerable about their trauma or experiences and are dismissed with toxic cheer, this leads to disengagement from the person. “They begin to feel anonymous and lonely. They start thinking, ‘I can’t be vulnerable’.”
These “accidental helpers” as Fieldhouse calls them, are unintentionally marginalising the person. It’s also a very superficial way of trying to solve a person’s problem, says Freddie Pullen, the co-founder of The Healthy Entrepreneur, a platform that attempts to solve health and mindset challenges. You think you have done your job by offering these words of comfort and been ‘there’ for a person, but instead, you’ve just made it worse.
‘Good vibes only’
The most common phrases that can belittle a person are ‘Other people have it worse’, ‘It’s just a phase’, and ‘Just don’t think about it’, says Cima. Moreover, by telling someone to ‘cheer up’, you could be encouraging them to suppress their negative emotion, which can result in depression, anxiety or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Thirty-eight-year-old Nayonika Ghosh, a homemaker in Abu Dhabi, dislikes the phrase ‘everything happens for a reason’. “When I lost my job during the COVID-19 pandemic and was unemployed for ten months, I got sick of people telling me this. I got tired of the ‘sending you positive vibes’ and ‘good vibes only’. It feels cruel, even if it is coming from a good place,” she says.
However, Ghosh adds that she believes some people use such contrite words as they don’t know how to tackle someone else’s issues. “I think many people want to be there for others, but are so uncomfortable with the idea of loss, trouble and grief that they resort to whatever comes to their mind at that point. I saw that with my mother, who finds it hard to express herself with excessive emotion, using such words as a manner of comfort. She would even say ‘Time will help you’, and I never knew what to say to that. So, in a way, I try not to get angry with them.” The truth is, nobody wants to see the other upset. While this might not be as nefarious as gaslighting at first, it is equally damaging.
In a study published in the American Journal of Psychosomatic Research, researchers compared survey results about emotional regulation styles with participants’ health records 12 years after they took the initial survey. They discovered that those who suppressed their emotions and agreed with statements like “I try to be pleasant so others won’t get upset,” suffered intensely from a wave of negative emotions throughout the study period, including deep depression. While more research is needed on the subject, the study asserted that it is far healthier to accept negative emotions than forcing yourself to be positive all the time.
How do you avoid this tragic optimism?
We all want to be there for others; there’s no doubt. Yet how do we be supportive without brightsiding them? Pay attention to your words, advises Cima. Instead of using toxic statements like ‘Just stay positive’ and ‘happiness is a choice’, say ‘I know you are badly affected. What can I do to help?’ Listen to them and be fully present, explains Pullen. Let them talk and hear them out properly first before you start offering any words of support and encouragement, so that they know they’re being heard. He also advises paying attention to your body language, so that the person feels more comfortable in your presence. Opt for statements like ‘I’m here’, ‘I’m listening’, and ‘I am so sorry it’s hard’.
Listen to them and be fully present. Let them talk and hear them out properly first before you start offering any words of support and encouragement, so that they know they’re being heard.
The point is to create a psychologically safe space, says Fieldhouse. Let the person express their fears and anxieties in a safe environment, and encourage them to speak up more.
The point is to create a psychologically safe place. Let the person express their fears and anxieties in a safe environment and encourage people to speak more. Let them vent...
After they’ve shared, vented and spoken, slowly start discussing paths to solutions. You need to have a balanced, positive approach, which involves listening as well as offering the right words for comfort.
Let them know what they feel is normal, and you don’t have to feel positive all the time, he says. If someone is brightsiding you, challenge or confront them, even if it feels uncomfortable. This is particularly helpful in the workplace, as it helps others to self-reflect, he says