The coronavirus will be a problem that we will face for a long time, just like the fears it generates. As infections increase, countries like the United States are steadily setting daily records of confirmed cases. There are many reasons to be afraid.
But when people share their fears with us, what can we say? It may seem that we are offering comfort with a comment that seeks to lift their spirits: "You can do this!", "I know you will be fine", but for those who are suffering, those feelings of enthusiasm may sound like we are ignoring their pain, which leaves little room for understanding or vulnerability.
Responding to someone's distress with a lighthearted and unhelpful attitude is what psychotherapist Whitney Goodman defines as contemptuous or toxic positivity.
An empathic response lets the other person know that we are looking at the situation from their point of view and that we share their suffering. A derogatory positive response in a subtle way shifts the burden of dealing with the problem to the person who is expressing the negative emotion: "If you changed your attitude, you would feel better."
What is derogatory positivity?
Contemptuous positivity can be expressed in many ways: “Everything will be fine. At least you didn't lose your job! ” "Be thankful that you can take advantage of this time to explore a new hobby." "Think of happy things!" "At least you have a partner with whom you share confinement." “This will not last forever and you are a resourceful person. You will be victorious! ”
Originally, derogatory positivity is a response from someone who feels uncomfortable in a situation and wants to make us feel better and silence our concerns, says psychotherapist Nicolle Osequeda. But often "it causes someone to feel ignored, frustrated, unsupported, and alone."
Just because we say a phrase like "You'll be fine!" Doesn't mean that will happen.
"This is not how the world works," says Ayanna Abrams, a licensed clinical psychologist. “This is not how our bodies work. This is not how our brains work. ”
The problems and fears surrounding COVID-19 can be complex, and having a more positive outlook is not always a viable option. So below, we share what to say — and what not to say — when people express their fears and concerns to us.
Avoid giving advice about coronavirus
Don't minimize the other person's fears. Saying things like "You have nothing to worry about" doesn't make anxiety magically go away. And if someone is sharing their fears about the coronavirus, mentioning statistics on recovery rates isn't helpful either. Saying something like "The vast majority of people who are infected recover" doesn't help someone control their concerns at the moment, Abrams said.
Avoid trying to solve problems. "Any comment that begins with the phrases 'you just ought to' or 'all you have to do is' is not helpful and rejects the real fear about health, finances and security," Osequeda said.
Try not to offer advice that you were not asked for. Unless the other person explicitly asks for suggestions to deal with your concerns, you should not offer recommendations. "Chances are, people just want to be heard," Abrams said.
People are looking for a heart, someone who can accompany them in their experience so that later they can solve it in the best way.
Delete the word you must. Comments with the word must sound encouraging, but they are not. That's because we are telling people what to do or how to feel, said Sonia Fregoso, a licensed family and marriage therapist. Offering advice such as "You should practice self-care" or "You should not be so negative" is not helpful. "I think these tips come from a concern for the other person," Fregoso said. "But we don't know how to express that concern, and we may fear that we are contributing to what you are already experiencing."
Exchanging false positivity for assertiveness
A better way to formulate your concern is to use reflection, validation, and curiosity, in that order, Fregoso said. Reflect the emotion you hear in your friend's voice. Fear, sadness, and worry are common emotions that people are feeling right now.
Osequeda suggests saying things like this to reflect the other person's emotions:
"I can't imagine how you feel, and I'm here to listen to you." Say: "I hear you" while nodding and making a comforting gesture. "That sounds very difficult." "I can hear how fearful you feel."
Next, validate the other person's emotions. Goodman suggests saying things like:
"Yes, it is very difficult to keep your job in the middle of a pandemic." "It is very difficult to stay busy, and not all of us are operating at 100 percent." "Having to work hard in the middle of all this is very challenging." “Yes, it is terrifying to lose your job. Surely, you feel like you lost your sense of security. ” "Yes, it is difficult to know what will happen next."
Regardless of what causes them stress, "help them feel that it is normal to experience those feelings during a pandemic," Fregoso said. "All feelings are valid."
Many people have had to postpone or cancel important celebrations or trips. It's okay to be upset about that. Canceling plans and abandoning dreams is sad. "People spend a lot of time, energy, and money planning these important events, and finding a way to feel sad about it is important," Goodman said. Validation is agreeing with them on how confusing it is to experience those losses.
Finally, Fregoso said that we should activate our curiosity about what the other person needs to help them process their fears, concerns or sadness. Don't assume you have all the answers. If someone is worried about getting sick, for example, once you validate that it is indeed frightening to fear for your own health, ask which aspect of contracting the virus is of most concern to you. Make sure the other person feels heard.
Fix inappropriate comments
Once you have realized what derogatory positivity sounds like, you may also realize that you have not been a good confidant. It is not too late to repair the damage. Abrams suggests communicating and being transparent about not having made a good comment.
Say something like, “Hey, I realized that when we were talking earlier, you didn't feel a connection to what I was saying. I think I suddenly behaved like a cheerleader. Can we try again? How do you feel now?".
"The antidote to derogatory positivity is listening to what someone is experiencing," said Abrams. If that's difficult for you, she recommends researching why. Find out what part of the conversation is bothering you and what you are trying to achieve by being too positive.
If you don't know what to say the next time you feel the need to behave like a cheerleader, Abrams suggests asking the person directly what they would find helpful. Make them allies so they can face their problems together.