Michelle Lindstrom was going through the unimaginable: grieving the loss of her infant daughter. During the funeral ceremony, a friend of a friend tried to comfort her. “Don’t worry,” the woman said, resting her hand on Lindstrom’s arm. “You’re young. You can have another baby!”
That was two decades ago, and while Lindstrom acknowledges that the woman intended no harm, she still marvels at the inappropriateness of the words. “I just froze,” she recalls. “I thought, What am I supposed to say?”
Lindstrom had been “bright-sided,” a term that entered common parlance when Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sided was published in 2009. In it, Ehrenreich recounts the cheerful optimism that surrounded her in the wake of her breast-cancer diagnosis, when people bombarded her with inspirational adages and relentless positivity, as though she could simply will her way into remission.
This insistence on positivity has deep roots. “Americans are a ‘positive’ people,” she writes. “This is our reputation as well as our self-image. We smile a lot and are often baffled when people from other cultures do not return the favor.”
In the right situations, optimism can be a powerful force. Studies have shown that a positive outlook can enhance quality of life and increase the odds of survival from traumatic brain injury, stroke, brain tumors, and other neurological conditions.
Laughter can strengthen immunity, soothe anxiety, and improve cognitive function. Some research suggests that the mere act of smiling can stimulate the amygdala, releasing mood-boosting neurotransmitters.
And yet relentless positivity in the face of real distress, like the kind Lindstrom and Ehrenreich experienced, can do more harm than good — even if it’s well-intentioned.
We all have a tendency to bright-side, whether it’s to avoid discomfort or offer an air of support to a friend in need. But often, we can be more helpful by learning to recognize and avoid the impulse to wash over negative experiences. This can ultimately strengthen our relationships and even boost our emotional health.
When silver-lining thinking is used as an avoidance strategy — or when it discounts someone else’s emotions — that “positive vibes only” approach can become counterproductive. Some psychologists refer to this as “toxic positivity,” and it flourished during the pandemic.
“I have a friend in New York who got COVID pretty early on,” says Kari O’Driscoll, author of Truth Has a Different Shape. “People would say things to her like, ‘At least you didn’t die.’ ‘At least you didn’t have to be hospitalized.’ ‘At least you don’t have $100,000 in hospital bills.’”
While she wasn’t buried in medical debt, O’Driscoll’s friend did struggle with post-COVID symptoms; like so many long-haulers, she was a once-healthy woman who couldn’t climb a staircase without gasping for breath. The well-meaning insistence that she should feel grateful to be alive made it harder for her to process that experience, and to mourn what she’d lost.
“I think people feel awkward about accepting somebody else’s struggle and witnessing it,” O’Driscoll says. “We assume that they’re asking us for our advice or our perspective when they mostly aren’t. Or we’re so uncomfortable with the situation that we want to minimize it.”
Resisting or repressing negative feelings may feel like optimism, but it actually keeps us from experiencing the full spectrum of human emotion. It can lead to a rupture in a friendship as well as dissonance within yourself.
If a friend or family member trots out a stock phrase like “Everything is meant to be” when you’re going through difficult times, their casual response may cause you to second-guess your own feelings and instincts. “You might think, Wow, why am I freaking out about this? Maybe it isn’t a big deal,” O’Driscoll explains.
This can also lead to disconnection in some of our closest relationships, notes Darcy Sterling, PhD, LCSW-R, a clinical social worker and relationship expert. “If we don’t know ourselves — if we can’t accurately identify how we’re feeling and why — we’re unable to guide others who we’re in relationship with,” Sterling explains. “That leaves them in the dark to guess at our needs, which increases the odds that they’ll get it wrong, fail to meet our needs, and ultimately feel like a failure in the relationship.”
Shutting down challenging emotions also perpetuates a kind of cultural mythology that negative emotions are inherently shameful or even a personal failing, which can make you feel weak for feeling distressed. In other words, you can end up feeling bad for feeling bad.
How to Break the Bright-Siding Habit
Sterling argues that the best way to respond to bright-siding is with compassion, vulnerability, and dialectical thinking. “Yes, it could be much worse — I can be grateful for that,” she says. “And I can also acknowledge that my situation sucks. Both things can be true. They’re not mutually exclusive.”
If you’re tempted to respond to someone’s tough situation with a sunny-sounding cliché, don’t be hard on yourself. “The impulse to help people is human,” says Megan Devine, author of It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand. “It’s a wonderful impulse. We don’t want to snuff that out completely.”
What you want to practice, though, is recognizing the instinct to help and taking a minute to consider what the situation really calls for. “Do they need support or advice?” Devine asks. “Most times, people don’t need advice. They just need to be heard.”
Determining your role before responding can help. When her daughters were younger, O’Driscoll recalls, they’d often hop into her car after school and immediately start to vent about something. O’Driscoll would “instantly go into mom mode,” asking how she could help and offering suggestions. But she eventually realized that her interruptions were frustrating them.
“I started saying, ‘Are you venting? Am I giving you my opinion? Or do you want my advice? Tell me which one of those three hats I’m wearing, and then we’re good to go.’”
This approach can also improve your listening skills. “If I know that the other person just needs me to sort of be a container and someone who acknowledges what they’re going through, then I don’t have to leap ahead to all the possible solutions,” she adds. It takes the pressure off finding a fix, and allows you to be fully present with someone else’s experience.
Devine suggests practicing in lower-stakes arenas first. For example, at the coffee shop when you ask the barista how their day is going, and they say, “Not that great — the dog was up sick all last night, and I was an hour late to work so it’s just been a crummy day,” you could respond in a couple of ways: “Hey, at least it’s not raining outside.” (Tip: If your response starts with “but” or “at least,” consider how it may land, and why you are saying it.)
Or, you could catch yourself and resist the urge to solve somebody else’s pain or gloss over it. Instead of ignoring their feelings, Devine suggests saying something like, “That sounds really difficult. I’m sorry things are so rough.”
A simple, compassionate response like this “mirrors their experience back to them and acknowledges and validates that it was terrible,” she explains. Often, that’s all we need when we’re struggling: for someone else to witness and recognize it.
“It’s not your job to take away somebody’s pain,” she adds. “It’s your job to support them inside it. That opens up a whole realm of possibilities for people.”
This article originally appeared as “Too Much of a Good Thing” in the September 2021 issue of Experience Life.