Dismissive Positivity

Since the beginning of time, if not before, non-disabled people have always been jittery around visibly disabled people, at least on first encounter.

And often on second, third, and fourth encounters, too. Is this a natural impulse buried deep in the lizard brain, fearful of all impairment, or just shock of the unknown? Which of course raises the question: How unknown are people with disabilities in America, where one out of every four adults are disabled, and one out of every two Americans know a relative or close acquaintance who is disabled? We no longer incarcerate or isolate the disabled -- except for the three-four million we continue to stick in institutions -- and we don’t shun or demean them in public, at least not overtly. There is not a politically active Ableist Society trying to permanently separate the disabled from the rest of us.

Is your positivity toxic?

No, today, the most prevalent mode of disguising your jitteriness about people with disabilities -- or any kind of life trauma -- is to do your best to cheer them up. The reason for this is simple: it’s the quickest way to distance yourself from their perceived pain and misery and still feel good about doing so. When in doubt, be positive. There’s no downside to being cheerful and encouraging, right? No one is going to accuse you of being insensitive or tone deaf by being upbeat in the face of loss. That’s why “The Power of Positive Thinking” is one of the best-selling books ever.

Well, there’s a new school of thought about positive thinking, but it isn’t positive. Popularized by a Miami-based psychotherapist, Whitney Goodman, it’s been called dismissive positivity or toxic positivity. It’s the kneejerk response we often give when confronted with someone else’s negative experience. You pull positive catch phrases out of the hat in an attempt to instantly fix the situation with the right response. You may mean well, you may think you are saying the right thing, but in most cases, you are causing harm -- you are glibly dismissing the other person’s real experience of pain and grief, almost as if they should be ashamed of having such dark feelings. It’s called toxic because, with your cheery little clichés, you are actually making that person feel worse about themselves. You are doubling the pain by being so blithe and cavalier.


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There are a hundred of these upbeat phrases meant to gloss over the anguish that others are experiencing. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • “Everything happens for a reason.” The gold standard, meaning, a) you must have done something, or been something, awful to deserve this -- you are responsible, and b) maybe you’ll “learn something” and be a better person because of it.
  • “Don’t worry, it’ll all work out, it’ll get better, just think positive.” In other words, shut off those real feelings and just fake it. I know I’ll feel better if you do.
  • “God only gives us what we can handle.” The Biblical gold standard: if you can’t handle paralysis or cancer or the loss of a child, then you’ve let God down.
  • “Just think, so many people have it worse off than you do.” A perfect way to dismiss pain or anger as self-indulgent and to induce guilt.
  • “Happiness is a choice.” Don’t feel sad or hurt -- bad choice!
  • “You’ll get over it!” Meaning, if you don’t soon, you are messed up.

Dismissive positivity is a cognitive bias, an unconscious mental strategy to avoid often painful, unresolved, and problematic emotions at all costs. Rather than be so quick to spin things into some universal declaration that ends the conversation before it even starts, try listening. Try to experience what the other person is experiencing before attempting to mend it with a trite, quick-fix slogan.

If you have experienced the onset of paralysis or any other life-altering crisis, you will never tell someone else in the same situation “You’ll get over it” or “Everything happens for a reason.” You will let them have their say, acknowledge it, then perhaps compare your experience to theirs, simply as a means of making an emotional connection. Whether you have been there or not -- and most of us haven’t -- forget the quick, easy judgement; the dismissive blow-off. You are not them -- what do you know about what they’re going through?

About the Author - Allen Rucker

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

Allen Rucker

The opinions expressed in these blogs are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.