“People Say, ‘Be Positive’ When You Have Cancer. I Prefer to Complain With Friends.” This title of a recent opinion piece by Annaliese Griffin in the New York Times caught my eye.  

Griffin, who writes about culture, lifestyle and health for the Times, eloquently describes the effect of her cancer diagnosis on both her family and professional lives. She talks about the questions she grappled with. Whom should she tell? Could she hang on to her ‘normal,’ pre-diagnosis life? She discusses the reactions of her family and friends to her diagnosis; reactions that were not those she wanted. She explains the problem that people in her situation have to deal with all too often: how society expects them to behave.

Can Positivity Be Toxic?

When we are dealing with a serious illness, it is all too common to hear banal platitudes from well-meaning people. “Everything is going to be all right,” they say. “You will lick this!” Or, “Be positive, it will help you get well soon.”

It is true that a positive outlook can help maintain balance and promote a feeling of being in control. However, there are times when we do not want to be positive. We are hurting. We have existential angst. The knowledge that others are suffering more than we are doesn’t make our own, very real suffering go away. We want to complain, to vent, to throw things, and scream at the world. We don’t want to be told “there, there, calm down, it’ll all be okay.” We need to hear: “Go ahead, get it off your chest. It’s okay to complain!”

‘Poor Cancer Mom’

Griffin takes this argument a step further. She wants her family and co-workers to complain right back to her, about whatever irritant they happen to be facing – big or small.  This helps normalize her situation, she points out. She does not want to be the ‘poor cancer mom,’ with her unfortunate diagnosis at the center of all conversations. Complaining with her signifies empathy and commiseration and helps her define a new normal. “Looking on the bright side can start to feel like a script I’m performing rather than an actual communication of what I’m feeling,” she says.

How Do We Best Support Our Friends?

“The unrealistic expectation that we should always be happy can make us feel worse. Inhibiting the disclosure of our dissatisfaction can produce a negative effect,” says Dr. Robin Kowalski, a professor of psychology at Clemson University.

How can we best support someone like Griffin? By figuring out how to empower them to deal with their distress. By providing the space and encouragement to share their feelings and emotions, and enabling them to find the normalcy they seek. Everyone is different. By complaining about their own problems, Griffin’s friends gave her the opportunity to empathize with them. This provides the opportunity to reach back to life the way it was before her diagnosis. Each of us has to understand how best to support our friends, to bond with them by validating and normalizing their emotions.

Misplaced Optimism

There is a culture of toxic positivity in our society that can be more harmful than helpful.  It is the tendency to urge people to maintain a positive mindset, regardless of the situation they’re facing. Instead of validating and affirming their emotions, this response essentially dismisses them.  Most often, this is an instinctive, almost knee-jerk reaction that we have. It often comes about because we feel very uncomfortable about our friend’s situation, and don’t know what to say or how to react. Our well-intentioned responses have the opposite effect from what we hoped.  

False positivity is the excessive exercise of misplaced optimism, says Eser Yilmaz, a neuroscientist at the Berkeley Well-Being Institute. A one-size-fits-all forced positivity becomes extreme optimism or toxic positivity, says Yilmaz.

It takes thought, effort, and investment of one’s own emotional capital to be there for someone who is facing difficult times. Human emotions are authentic, and require an authentic and supportive response. False positivity is dismissive of these emotions altogether; it negates their authenticity.

True Empathy

When faced with negative emotions, we need to transcend our own discomfort, and accept and embrace those emotions, says Susan David, author of “Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.”  We share someone’s feelings by acknowledging them, thereby building a bridge on which we can provide true empathy and comfort. We recognize the facts without putting a positive spin on things, and can begin a dialog to understand how best to support them. This is a skill we have to learn and practice.

“When we push aside difficult emotions in order to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop deep skills to help us deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be,” David says.

Validate Feelings

Yilmaz offers some examples of how you can respond to a complaint from someone in distress, and initiate the difficult conversation:

That must be really hard. Is there anything I can do to support you?

It is okay to feel what you feel.

I understand how stressful that might be.

How will you accept and validate the feelings of a friend or a loved one in distress?  Build your own skills to be there for them when they need you?  True empathy and compassion are like muscles, they need to be exercised regularly. If you haven’t worked them in a while, it could be uncomfortable or a little painful in the beginning!

Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within...