When “Positivity” Goes Wrong: Please Stop Shaming People For Being Sad

Sometimes what people refer to as “positivity” is actually denial. I’m all for having a positive attitude, but I have also battled major depression and I’ve had enough of people scolding me in the name of “positivity” if I express a negative emotion.
Publish date:
January 17, 2014
depression, sadness, pessimism, shame, optimism

I was once leaving a small group dinner, getting a ride home from a friend who had just been through a major breakup. Everyone was surprised that he was even there, but when we asked, he cheerily told us that he was over it.

When he started his car the song he had been listening to resumed playing loudly-- Damien Rice’s maudlin breakup hymn “Accidental Babies.” I can name that tune in one note and I knew he had driven there alone, so I gathered that maybe he wasn’t fully “over it;” which was further evidenced by him slumping down over the steering wheel and sobbing.

In a safe space with friends who knew and cared about him and had specifically asked about his emotional state, he had still hidden it. I gently asked him why he hadn’t said anything and he told me, sobbing, that he was “staying positive.”

Sometimes what people refer to as “positivity” is actually denial. I’m all for having a positive attitude, but I have also battled major depression and I’ve had enough of people scolding me in the name of “positivity” if I express a negative emotion.

I do believe in social etiquette, mind you, and I’m not advocating complaining without boundaries. I’m not going to walk into a crowded bar and unload on a stranger, but I will speak up if I’m in a safe space confiding in someone I thought cared about me and their first response is to shame me for my sadness.

If they say any variation of "You're not the only person with problems in the world, you know/There are people much worse off than you", they just might not be emotionally equipped to understand or to help. And they might get there one day, but if I’m having trouble just dealing with myself, it’s unlikely that I can also spare the emotional energy to help others learn how to deal with me. (Though there’s always Google…)

I understand the intention of that response: perspective, which is certainly necessary. But that person is essentially telling me that my emotions are not significant or real enough to even address right now. What I’m expressing may be very far from their experience—unfathomable to them, even.

But no one has the right to talk you out of your feelings; that is not the same as caring or support. We know that it is unhealthy to keep our feelings bottled up. So why do so many people admonish us when we express sadness?

It's a reality that many people are uncomfortable in awkward situations and don’t realize that it is OK to not know what to say. So they throw out suggestions like “Well, I just stay positive…” (with the implied accusation that I have failed at something that comes easily to them) or the flat-out command “Don’t be so negative!” Awesome suggestion. Thanks, pal.

Also, depression can bring with it a component of being trapped within oneself, which can read to others as a form of self-centeredness, provoking a “snap out of it” response. It is an ugly reality than can hopefully be lessened with treatment and awareness of our surroundings. But that awareness is a two-way street and to diminish someone’s feelings is to make them feel bad for feeling bad. Don't make people in your life feel bad for feeling bad. Trust me, we already do.

And then there’s the difficult truth that maybe a dismissive response actually is intentional. Maybe there’s resentment that someone is not being honest with themselves about, and it comes out by responding to a loved one’s sincere struggle with impatient catchphrases like “Just smile!” or “Look on the bright side!”

This is tough, because a depressed person actually can be a "downer"--I know I have been. But that doesn’t make me less deserving of kindness from loved ones, does it? My view is that only by being honest about being “down” at times can we build ourselves back up. And it is important to note that talking to a friend is not a substitute for consulting a mental health professional.

My ability to make this distinction is what allows me to understand if someone’s response is less than perfect or doesn’t involve quoting psychiatry textbooks, but still bristle at being actively shamed or insulted. Besides, I never imagine that speaking of negative emotions will lighten the mood or always be welcomed with open arms, but if I trust you enough to confide in you to begin with, I deserve to at least be able to share my truth even if it does not meet your requirements for polite chit-chat.

In the past I have isolated myself and remained mum from even close friends because I didn't want to be a burden, especially considering my background as a comedic performer and the social expectation to be “on”. But if someone truly cares about you, the bigger burden would be hearing the truth after the fact. The bigger “downer” would be losing you.

I like to make people laugh but it is also important to me to be honest about my struggle. I’m inspired by the many comedians who mine laughter from pain, notably Rob Delaney, who speaks openly about fighting clinical depression AND was also named Funniest Person on Twitter by Comedy Central. So…that’s possible.

Sometimes people say words like "You're not a burden" or “I’m here for you” but behave in ways that say the exact opposite. If this is someone close to you, it is absolutely worth having a conversation to see if they are aware of it and interested in working on it. But be aware that they might not be.

Another tough reality is that some people have decided that they only want 100% Positive People around them. I get it. TeamHappy doesn’t realize they may be missing out on our overall greatness if they shame us for our sadness, but that’s their loss.

Personally, saying I'm not feeling great is often the first step to feeling better. I know that many preach to Fake It Till You Make it, but I’ve tried it and decided that doesn't work for me. I'm a trained actress. I could potentially Fake It forever and never do the Make It part. In principle, I agree with the idea that practiced behaviors can become habit over time, even if they are forced at first, but in practice I have to roll up my sleeves and do the work required to unlock my joy. And I have to honor my feelings when they are unpleasant in order to do the work to make them better.

It always amazes me when a Happy speaks to me as if it never occurred to me to “Just Smile!” I grew up doing just that, being the older child of a single mother with misdiagnosed and undertreated mental illness. My mother alternated between depressive detachment and horrible violence. Being a ginormous nerd, I read every book in the library on mental illness because (as I later figured out) I thought I could somehow “fix” my mother and make things better. I “stayed positive.” She would ignore me or beat me and scream at me and I would just take it, saying to myself, "It’s OK, that’s just her illness talking.”

…Staying “positive.”

While I believe a portion of my excuses to be true, the pure denial of anything that I was feeling, up to and including the very basic sensation of being hit, was damaging. Outside of the house, I performed happiness at an Academy Award level, never speaking of my mother’s illness or my own growing depression. Back at home I would grin and bear it, willing my body to not produce tears because I was concerned that signs of me being upset would only serve to upset my mother more.

These days, you'd better believe if I feel tears coming on I LET THEM COME. A few tears could never harm me as much as withholding them has. And what if it isn't only "a few" tears? Well, as a person who battles depression, that is a possibility to be dealt with accordingly, which is another reason why I refuse to be shamed for speaking up anymore.

"But you have to let go of the past! Live in the now!” --TeamHappy

Absolutely! I’m workin’ on it. But if my "now" is not feeling so great, I'm not going to pretend otherwise for your benefit.

"Happiness is a choice you can make. Choose joy!” --TeamHappy

Believe it or not, I buy this one. BUT with two conditions that are often problematic for the Happys. One: happiness may be a choice we can all make, but we are not all beginning at the same starting point. And two: my happy might not look like your happy.

I don't begrudge anyone their joy or experiences, so if I can understand that perhaps you had a stable upbringing and/or your brain chemicals are in a healthy state of balance, can you possibly imagine that maybe I didn't and/or mine aren't? And that I know I can be happy too but I won't get there any faster if you shame me for taking longer to get there than you do or if my destination looks different from yours when I arrive?

Once someone is open about emotional difficulty, it is easy for them to always be on the “wrong” side of any conflict involving moods, which is really dismissive. January is often a bleak month; the opposite of the social media holiday blitz of presents and vacations and Instagrammed engagement rings. To some, if you express even a hint of anxiety you are forever branded a Debbie Downer or a Negative Nelly. Hey-- I love alliteration too, but ease up on that.

There is true positivity in the world, of course! But some people are faking it so hard that you only find out by accidentally hearing a Damien Rice song in their car. Here’s a clue: The genuinely positive people I’ve met don’t feel a constant need to point out when others are not. Being around them is a joy and they don’t shame me for being different. They care.


As for me, I’m feeling good these days and when I share it, it is because I fight hard for it and I am SO grateful. Anytime I explicitly espouse positivity, I don’t want you to feel left out or feel shame if you are not feeling particularly smiley. Shame is for the birds. It makes us hide and impedes getting better. Joy is ours to experience as well, and it is OK to need help getting there.

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