7 Reasons Why People Say (Unhelpful, Sometimes Even Hurtful) Positivity Comments

In the early months when I was recovering from my lung procedure, some well-intentioned people told me to “stay positive, don’t think about the possible negative outcomes!” or “Be thankful! Other people have it worse!” While I saw the intention behind these comments, they were hard to hear. I’m all for having a good mindset, but there was something painful about needing empathy and receiving comments that shut me down as I tried to express my feelings. We weren’t sure if I’d be spending the rest of my life on oxygen, if I’d be ever be able to sing along to Adele in my kitchen again, or what my immune system could handle. I needed to express my fear and grief so I could heal. Expression was part of my strategy to find my way to resilience. 

I had been using the term “Toxic Positivity” to label these comments but after speaking with Susie Schwartz on my podcast, I changed my mind on using that word. (Susie’s podcast is episode 10 – here is the Spotify link but I’m on all the major apps.) 

Susie is a writer and she pointed out “toxic positivity” isn’t a good descriptor of what’s happening. She suggested I use the term “Negative Positivity” to describe people who mean well but say something that feels disconnecting to the person who is grieving or navigating chronic illness or disease. It’s very rare for someone to have “toxic” intentions. I agreed. It is rare that someone would have toxic intentions. Yet, we don’t always respond with empathy or connection when people express their deep feelings. If the other person is needing empathy, why would someone say a negative positivity comment?

Here are my top 7 reasons why someone would say a Negative Positivity comment instead of connecting.

1. They feel compassion but don’t know how to convey it

Sometimes we just don’t know how to convey the compassion we feel. This has definitely happened to me. Sometimes I get so in touch with the feelings the person is sharing, that when there is a natural pause in conversation and I know I am supposed to say something, I don’t know what to say! (This even happened to me on the podcast recording with Susie! You can hear it/ watch it on the recording!) I think it is OK to sincerely express when you don’t know what to say.

2. They are not comfortable with their feelings

As comfortable as I am with feelings, if the other person is sharing things that makes me uncomfortable or I find triggering, I may be tempted to end the conversation with a negative positivity comment. Ideally, I think it is more helpful to be direct and say “I don’t know that I can handle this kind of depth.” In reality, it can be hard to access this kind of direct statement. Culture plays a big role here. It’s hard to be direct and admit you can’t handle the depth of another person’s feelings. I certainly had to grieve when someone couldn’t handle my feelings but I did appreciate knowing a person’s limits.

3. They don’t have capacity for this right now

Maybe we do have the capacity for deep feelings…just not right now…. If the other person is sharing things and I want to go there but I don’t have the capacity, I try to say that aloud. I think caregivers find themselves in this space sometimes. It is a lot of emotional work to watch someone go through something heartbreaking and scary. It is OK to need a break – the tricky part is noticing your limit and saying it aloud! Again, on the receiving end, I always appreciated knowing a person’s limits. I was fine to look for other strategies. In fact, I tried to remember to check in with those around me before sharing.

4. They don’t have compassion for the receiver

Ooofff. I’ve been on the receiving end of this I think. This may be surprising, but I think I would prefer to hear a negative positivity comment than hear a direct comment that the other person doesn’t have compassion for me. In fact, I might even say, if you don’t have compassion for the other person, go ahead and say whatever negative positivity comment comes to mind! Since my disease journey was so intertwined with COVID, I have been a walking trigger for some people. Instead of hearing “I don’t care about you or what you need, I value my needs more” (and I have heard all kinds of versions of that), I much prefer something more benign.

5. They feel scared and want to reassure themself

Sometimes the negative positivity comments reflect the speaker’s needs, not the receiver. Of course you don’t want to go through what the other person is going through, but comments that blame, wrong, or fault the other person for their experience or place responsibility for the outcome on the person in the crappy situation are really disconnecting. It is hard to catch our judgements in the moment though. That is why I am sharing this post in fact and why I wanted to have Susie on my podcast as a guest. If you have made comments like these, grieve what you wish you could have done differently in the moment as a way to move forward.

6. They want the receiver to be OK and think they can be by following their winning strategy

Maybe you went through something just as bad or worse and your strategy was instrumental in your healing? You see them in pain and you want them to be OK and you believe with your whole heart they can be if they just follow your advice! Oh I hear the good intention here, just know that everyone’s experience is unique and falls within a larger context of of life experiences. They may be curious to know about your strategy – “You need to be positive!” “Focus on gratitude!” “Take this supplement!”, just ask them first if that would be helpful for them to hear your strategy. But first, you have to catch yourself dishing out advice. (That is a self awareness challenge I can help you with!)

7. They are trying to connect but what they say is not felt as connecting to the receiver

Susie pointed this one out in the podcast recording and it hit home for me with a sense of sadness because I have done this one! Perhaps you are trying to relate to the other person’s story and you think of something related and share it and then shared an outcome that was terrible and realize how unhelpful it was to share that story. Foot in mouth! This missed connection is hard to recover from. I would recommend something honest like “Wow, that was not a helpful story for me to share. I regret saying that. I was trying to connect and it came out wrong. I didn’t want to add to your fear and worry. I’m sorry.” 

The majority of the time, people say “stay positive” or “look on the bright side” or “be strong” because they don’t know how to say something more connecting. If you can challenge yourself to say something more representative of your feelings and intentions, that’s wonderful but I recognize (from personal experience) sometimes we aren’t able to in the moment and we say this other negative positivity stuff instead. If reading this post reminds you of the time you said something and now regret it, please remember, it is what you could access at the time. Connect to what you were needing as a way to have compassion for yourself and get closer to saying something more in line with your intention next time.


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