Toxic positivity: 7 things you should never say to someone who is feeling down

by Isabel Cabrera | February 22, 2024, 8:52 pm

Being social creatures, we need to be aware of our communication styles.

When someone is blue, for example, we have to be able to read the room and work to say the right things (if anything at all.)

At the end of the day, we all just want to get along with people and cultivate the right relationships.  

To get you started, I’ll take you through the specific things you shouldn’t say to someone going through a tough time. 

The last thing you want to do is come across as insensitive and make your dejected friend or relative feel even worse. Saying the wrong thing at the wrong time can have consequences. 

So it’s best to exercise caution. 

Are you ready to begin uplifting your peers? Let’s dive in! 

1) “Everything happens for a reason”

Sure, you might mean well by saying this one, but it can also somehow belittle the other person’s pain, making them feel like their emotions are exaggerated or unjustified. 

This is an especially testy time, you need to choose your words carefully, with grace, understanding, and humility in mind. 

Mean what you say and back it up. 

And personally, when I’m going through something painful, I despise hearing vapid cliches. 

“Everything happens for a reason,” is sort of presumptuous. 

You’re assuming that this person has the same belief in predetermined fate or destiny as you do.

Not everyone thinks the same. So when in doubt, it’s best to stay quiet

2) “It’s not as bad as it seems”

As I mentioned in the previous point, this is an especially touchy and turbulent period for the person on the receiving end. Hence, the last thing you want to do is trivialize their feelings. 

“It’s not as bad as it seems” is pretty dismissive and arguably even lacking in empathy. 

When attempting to console someone, your goal is to be a source of comfort and understanding, not insensitivity. 

When my beloved canine Rudy suddenly passed away in 2021, I was positively distraught. 

The worst part was I was overseas when it happened. When I flew back, I needed to quarantine for ten days at a hotel in complete isolation before being able to get home. 

In that hotel, I had constant tearful ruminations about my departed pup. It was a dark period for me. 

I remember texting my dad about how I was so depressed and desolate about the whole ordeal. He responded, “It happens to all dog owners, it’s not that bad.” 

In addition to my sorrow, his lack of compassion for my situation made me feel pretty angry too–not an ideal combination of emotions for me at that point.

3) “Just think positive”

Everyone has the right to grieve or feel sad, so save the inspirational sentiment for a later date, ideally when the emotions have thoroughly subsided.

When you tell someone to think positively, you aren’t just downplaying the entire situation, you’re suggesting that their pain can be alleviated by a simple change of mindset. 

It’s obviously a glaring oversimplification—quite a heartless one too. 

You’re essentially implying that their grief is a choice, which obviously isn’t the case. 

This is both unhelpful and can make them feel bad for harboring emotions.

Finally, this is yet another empty cliche. 

In short, it’s best to avoid “just think positive” altogether. 

4) “Other people have it worse”

There’s always a time and place for perspective and ‘whataboutisms,’ and that time isn’t when the wounds are still fresh. 

I mean, yes, there’s always someone who has it objectively worse, but what’s the point of saying it

You’re basically communicating that their struggle isn’t all that significant, which can feel isolating and invalidating. 

They’re going through it not you, so be attuned to them and the situation, don’t make them have to answer for their feelings.

Give it time. Let the other person put things into perspective on their own time. Don’t impose healing and clarity on others. 

This mindset can potentially alienate you from people too. Hence, you might want to cool it with the unfair comparisons. 

5) “Cheer up!”

This is a particularly annoying one to hear when you’re amidst the throes of despair. 

The reality is, you can’t simply cheer up on command. That’s an unfair request for anyone. 

Everyone has the right to feel sad. 

Human emotions are a tad more complex than we realize. 

Telling someone to ‘cheer up!’ is disregarding their feelings and I promise you will almost always come across as dismissive and unsympathetic. 

When I broke up with my ex, I was in a state of depression and melancholy for weeks. 

The day after I broke the news to my friends, instead of making the effort to comfort me and be present, they responded by telling me to “cheer up! Let’s go out and get wasted!” 

Maybe they meant well, but that sentiment didn’t resonate with me.

The last thing I wanted to do was go out and party, knowing alcohol (and possibly whatever else they had in mind) is a notorious depressant. 

I wasn’t ready to get out there, needing more time to process. 

I wish they could’ve taken that into account.

6) “Just move on already”

Speaking of processes, everyone has theirs, don’t make them feel rushed to “get over” their feelings faster than they’re able to. 

This isn’t just thoughtless, but sweeping things under the rug and “moving on” can result in some unresolved painful emotions, which can manifest in unhealthy behaviors down the line. 

Let people be. 

Don’t pressure them to heal when the pain is raw. 

Once again, you have to let people move in their own time. Chances are, they’ll let you know when it’s the appropriate time to reach out. 

7) “This too shall pass”

Sure, this can be true in many cases. 

But in the midst of an emotional rollercoaster, using this phrase can also feel minimizing, leaving your friend feeling unsupported and misunderstood. 

As I’ve established repeatedly, you don’t want to dismiss. The goal is validation and comfort

Focus on meaningful affirmations and genuine empathy instead of tone-deaf passing phrases. 

So on that note, let’s move on to the next section… 

Things you should say to a person feeling down

It wouldn’t be fair to you, dear reader, to tell you what not to say without giving you viable replacements. 

Remember, when someone is feeling down, the words we choose to comfort them can make a world of difference. 

Here are a few things you CAN say to show empathy, support, and understanding:

  • “I’m really sorry you’re feeling this way, but I’m here for you”: This indicates emotional intelligence and will make them feel supported and loved.
  • “It’s okay to feel this way”: Remember, validating (not dismissing) is the priority above all else. 
  • “Can I do anything to help?”: It’s an emotional time, so instead of giving unsolicited advice, asking how you can help will be far more helpful.
  • “Would you like to talk about it?”: This one gives them the space to share their feelings if they feel it’s necessary. The ball is in their court, as it should be. 
  • “Take your time, there’s no rush”: As established, letting them know that there’s no rush to heal can be incredibly comforting.
  • “It’s really tough, I know”: A few simple words can mean the world. This one acknowledges their feelings and shows understanding.
  • “How are you feeling about all this?”: Inviting them to share their feelings can be more helpful than making assumptions.
  • “You’re not alone in this”: Letting them know that they have support can remedy feelings of isolation.
  • “You’ve overcome hard times before, you can do this too”: While reminding them of their strength can be a nice thing, make sure it’s appropriate to the situation and don’t dismiss their current feelings.
  • “It’s okay to take a break and just be”: Occasionally, people feel overwhelmed by everything. Telling your friend that they don’t constantly have to be “doing” or “fixing” their situation can be a huge relief.

Final thoughts 

Whether they’re dealing with a fresh breakup, losing a job, or even the passing of a loved one, when someone’s down in the dumps, it’s critical to approach the situation with a listening ear and an understanding heart. 

Don’t mindlessly toss around toxic positivity; this empty practice isn’t just meaningless, it can make a bad situation worse.

Telling someone to just “be positive” or “others have it worse” can feel dismissive, even if you do, in fact, mean well. 

Understand that what people mostly need is validation, compassion, and the opportunity to communicate their feelings in a safe space, without feeling judged. 

Don’t forget that your role is not to fix their situation but to let them know they’re not alone in their struggle. 

A little kindness and understanding can go a long way when someone’s feeling sad

So, together, let’s throw that toxic positivity in the bin and embrace genuine empathy and authenticity. 

I leave you with this quote by the late writer Octavia E. Butler:

“Sometimes being a friend means mastering the art of timing. There is a time for silence. A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own destinies. And a time to prepare to pick up the pieces when it’s all over.”

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