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How to Talk to Others About Coronavirus Fears

What is dismissive positivity and why is it toxic?

Anna Lurye/Shutterstock
Source: Anna Lurye/Shutterstock

There is a concept called dismissive positivity that has recently been popularized by Miami-based psychotherapist and fellow Psychology Today blogger Whitney Goodman. Dismissive positivity is a cheery, positive response to someone telling you about their distress or pain. It’s using clichés or Pollyanna responses to react to something one is upset about or when another is sharing painful feelings. It sounds counterintuitive to say that this is an insensitive response because we have been taught to try to think positive or stay upbeat when in a crisis. So, why is dismissive positivity toxic in communication?

Although dismissive positivity is exhibited in many conversations in life, talking to people about their coronavirus fears is a good place to start in discussing and understanding this concept. Many people, probably most of us, are really scared right now. There’s a lot to be afraid of with all the unknowns of the virus and no real end in sight for relief from the distress. Our worlds have been turned upside down from job loss, economics, school closings, lockdowns, and people getting sick and dying. There doesn’t seem to be an upside or a cheery response to these real fears. But someone who uses dismissive positivity may respond to your fears saying things like this:

  • “But it’s a wonderful time to relax and slow down.”
  • “Be grateful for all you have and count your blessings.”
  • “Use this time to kick up your favorite hobby or read a good book.”
  • “Everything will be OK, just give it time.”
  • “You’re strong, you got this, don’t panic.”
  • "You’ll figure it out, you always do.”

These may sound like some helpful strategies but instead may leave the person with fear feeling worse. It can cause the person to feel shamed for their distressing feelings. They come away thinking they are not being strong enough or positive enough about their life or situation.

So, what do they need? Empathy. It’s that simple. When someone is fearful, anxious, depressed, or stressed, they want you to listen and validate their feelings. They don’t want you to solve their problem or try to think of some cheery thought at that moment. When using this dismissive positivity, it minimizes and discounts their pain, leaving them feeling unheard and kind of stupid for having these feelings in the first place. The following is an example:

A client told me this week she was very anxious about getting back into her hair salon to get a color and cut because of her fears due to the pandemic. She trusted her beautician but was nervous about being around a lot of strangers indoors and within close proximity. She decided to take the risk but while at the salon started feeling some anxiety and even a little panic. She texted her best friend saying, “I’m here with dye on the head, waiting for it to be done, but so nervous and I can’t wait to get out of here!” The friend, a very kindhearted person who wanted to help, texted back, “You’re strong, you got this, hang tough, you’re one tough mama.” Although the intention was to help, the friend did the opposite. My client needed her friend to say something like: “I know this is really hard for you and it is scary. I was scared when I went too. This virus is making so many things so hard for us.” This would have provided empathy and helped her not feel alone or silly for being scared.

So, why do people use dismissive positivity? I believe many truly kind people do this, thinking they are being helpful, but just don’t understand. Many people think it is helpful to try to solve the problem, tell you what to do, offer unsolicited advice, or just say positive things. An article from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation website, written by Allen Rucker, sums it up by saying this; “Dismissive positivity is a cognitive bias, an unconscious mental strategy used to avoid often painful, unresolved, and problematic emotions at all costs.”

Rucker’s explanation made perfect sense to me. This toxic unhealthy way to respond to other’s feelings comes from a person who is trying to avoid painful conversations or really does not know what to say. It’s easier to grab a cliché and say, “Don’t feel that way,” or “Don’t worry, it will get better.”

As a clinician, seeing clients with traumatic backgrounds, I’m now seeing their therapy needs layered with our so-called “new normal.” There are real fears we all have about the COVID-19 pandemic and how it is affecting us all. I don’t expect or even imagine anyone authentically saying they are feeling great right now. Our best response to ourselves and our loved ones is to provide validation for feelings and empathy for the situation we are all in together. Remember all feelings are valid and feelings don’t have brains. Feelings are feelings. It’s a hard time and it’s ok to be human. We can model vulnerability and authenticity thereby giving others around us permission to do the same.

Please feel free to share your own experience with dismissive positivity and how it has impacted you.

Additional resources by the author here.

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