Because you wouldn’t tell someone with a broken arm to “just think positive”

Toxic positivity, what is it? You know that horrible feeling we’ve all had. You’re with a friend, a colleague or a family member and they’re telling you about their problems, maybe it’s infertility, maybe it’s not. Something specific, and personal. You can tell it’s weighing them down and you want more than anything to have a Morgan Freeman moment – place your hand on their shoulder, look deep into their eyes, and say something so profound, so impactful, that it changes their entire outlook on life. But you’re not Morgan Freeman and this isn’t a film, it’s real life, and you have absolutely no idea what to say. For those of us supporting loved ones who are trying to become pregnant, it’s an all too familiar feeling. But our determination to help by fixing everything can often lead our internal monologue to sound a bit like this:

“That’s horrible, I feel so bad for them. Oh wait, they’re not talking anymore…oh ummm…say something! For god’s sake think of something! Anything!!”

Inevitably the wrong thing tumbles out. A vague consolation, an offer of help, or much worse – something positive, with just a splash of toxicity. Something like:

“My sister drank this £300 smoothie every day and she got pregnant, straight away!”

“Your mum got pregnant really easily so you’ll be fine!”

“Just stay positive.”

“Try not to think about it.”

“Don’t worry, remember things could be way worse.”

These statements, whilst seemingly harmless, are what we call toxic positivity – a ‘good vibes only’ approach to life that pushes us to be positive at all times, regardless of what is going on for us. A positive outlook on life is a good thing. A positive outlook on life all the time is not good. It’s toxic. How? Being positive all the time takes away our right to feel a range of emotions, it invalidates our negative feelings. Sometimes life is tough, and feeling positive about it just isn’t the right thing.

Toxic positivity can have a subtle hint of cruelty; “It’s only been a year, my cousin tried for six years before adopting.” It’s like finding out your friend has lost their leg in a car accident and saying, “Well, some people are born without legs so just be grateful you ever had one.” It’s invalidating, condescending and unhelpful – including to the person born missing a leg.

What is toxic positivity, and where does it come from?

Toxic positivity is present in many different situations – not just infertility. Anyone who has struggled with their mental health has likely experienced it in some form. It can be born out of a lack of understanding of another person’s situation, but more often it comes from a well-intentioned but very misguided fear of engaging in an open discussion about difficult matters. The problem with toxic positivity is that at best, it undermines a person’s feelings, at worst, it suggests that a fault of their own is the root of their unhappiness. Specifically for those dealing with infertility, toxic positivity comes from friends and family’s lack of ability to do anything productive to help, and so in the absence of action, we take the stance of trying to stay positive for our friend or loved one – toxically so.

When ‘stay positive’ isn’t always the right answer.

Your friend is going through infertility. It’s heartbreaking. You want to help them. If you can’t be positive, what should you be? Validating. Just plain, simple, validation is the answer. Validation is listening without seeking to offer help. It is listening for the sake of listening, not ‘solutionising’ a problem that is not yours to solve. Validation is allowing the other person to share, without just trying to fix everything and move on as quickly as possible. Validation is creating a safe space for your friend to feel their feelings, free from judgement and shame. It is validating their emotional responses, without trying to change them. It is comforting, simple, and – when you know how – easy to do; just listen. Validation allows us to support others, even when we have no personal understanding of their situation – whether that is infertility, mental health, or relationships. Validation is about listening to another person’s problems and offering support rather than a solution.

“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.”

Validation allows us to bypass those unhelpful responses and instead provide actual reassurance – not that everything will be okay, but that we are there to support our loved one, even when it is not okay. Wouldn’t we all prefer to hear,

“This sounds really difficult. It’s okay to feel the way you do, I know you’re doing the best you can and I’m here for you.”

That’s much better, right? No guilt-tripping, no feeling like an inconvenience – just support. Take out the toxic positivity and we can help people far more. Sometimes it’s not about finding the answer, it’s about knowing that – as you wade through the seemingly endless sea of heartbreak, anxiety and fear – someone will be right there beside you, come what may.

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