Toxic Positivity and Depression: Why Optimism and “Looking at the Bright Side” Isn’t Always Helpful

words of encouragement for someone in rehab

In these uncertain times, I’m sure its fair to say that most of us have had the occasional moment of worry, anxiety, stress, or sadness. We hear the statistics like we may need to continue some form of social distancing into 2022, and we watch the number of people who have tested positive and those who have lost their battle with COVID-19 increasing. In the face of so much uncertainty and negative news, it can be difficult to respond positively or maintain optimism about the situation. For those who struggle with depression, it can feel near impossible to “look on the bright side”. While there is clearly a difference between feeling down about living in a pandemic and being clinically depressed, how do we know the difference between them when seeing it in a loved one, coworker, or acquaintance? 

Depression is one of the most common and most misunderstood mental health disorders in our culture. When we see a person struggling with depression, we may assume that person is not trying hard enough, is just being negative, or even self-centered. In her article “The Worst Things to Say to Someone Who is Depressed”, Nancy Schimelpfening explains “It’s important to remember that depression is a medical condition that requires treatment, be it with medication, therapy, or both. When you’re talking to a loved one about their depression, repeating platitudes can make someone feel that you’re minimizing their feelings. When you’re expressing your own feelings, the phrases you use may seem clear and to the point from your perspective, but the person with depression who is on the receiving end may feel attacked, misunderstood, or deeply hurt”. 

In our current pandemic situation, it may be difficult to tell the difference between feeling down and being depressed at a diagnosable level, but the temptation will be to help someone who appears down to feel better, solve their perceived problem, or help them regain motivation. However, in working with depression, we often mean these things with the best of intentions and they end up making the depressed person feel hopeless, attacked, or misunderstood. 

For example, telling someone that “we’re all in this together” may be intended to lift the depressed person’s spirits and let him or her know that he or she is not alone, but may have the effect of minimizing the reality or difficult moments that the depressed person has experienced. Acknowledging that everyone is going through hard times or losing jobs may come off as unsympathetic if the individual recently lost a job and cannot afford to pay bills. Knowing that many people are going through hard times does not change the fact that that individual is going through a difficult moment and does not help solve anything. 

Another example is trying to motivate someone by telling them “it could be worse for you” or “at least you get to be with your family”. This puts the depressed person in the position to need to justify why their situation is so bad, and make push them to continue ruminating on the negative things in their life. Part of depression is interpreting situations in negative ways, that may feel overwhelming or insurmountable, and this strategy plays into depressive thinking.

Being a compassionate listener is much more important than giving advice. You don’t have to try to “fix” your friend or family member; you just have to be a good listener. Often, the simple act of talking  face to face can be an enormous help to someone suffering from depression. Encourage the depressed person to talk about their feelings, and be willing to listen without judgment. If appropriate, encourage them to seek professional help for depression and provide support throughout the treatment process.

When you care about someone with depression and are trying to find the best way to help, it’s essential that you have some support yourself. Whether it comes from other people in your life or a support group for caregivers, taking care of yourself not only strengthens your ability to help your loved one but also sets a positive example of good self-care.

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