Toxic Positivity and Unsolicited Advice can be Harmful to Trauma Survivors

We’ve all seen them, those positive memes and quotes that pepper our newsfeeds offering hopeful messages and inspiration. But are they really helpful? For most people, they aren’t. This is especially true for trauma survivors.

People can mean well when they post these positive affirmations, but toxic positivity can really negatively affect people with mental illness and trauma histories. Of course there are also people who like to post these memes in a passive aggressive way, which is even more hurtful. Generally speaking, if someone’s intentions are good, telling a trauma survivor to let it go, forgive, think positively, be grateful, etc. can be extremely invalidating and hurtful.

People struggling with trauma definitely have trouble thinking positively, but telling them how to think and feel doesn’t help. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be extremely helpful for those struggling with mood disorders, addiction, phobias, anxiety, etc., but I’m trained in trauma-focused CBT, and I see lots of ways it lacks in helping someone heal from developmental trauma. CBT is a top down approach, meaning it helps people change the way they think and view themselves and the world. By observing our thoughts and gently redirecting them to more positive or neutral thoughts, we are able to change our behavior and lessen our symptoms. This type of therapy targets the frontal cortex where rational thought and critical thinking happens in the brain, which is why it’s a top down approach, because rational thought is the top of the neurobiological model. The problem is, trauma affects us mostly at the bottom of our brain, through the brain stem and amygdala. The bottom of our brain deals with intense emotions and nervous system activation. When someone is traumatized, this part of the brain lights up, and we are unable to access the frontal lobe for rational thinking. Treating trauma requires a bottom-up approach, meaning you start with ways to calm the central nervous system and regulate emotions before you attempt to change your thoughts. This is why somatic therapy, movement, and grounding is very important for developmental trauma survivors. Swimming and other movement helps me shed the fear and panic in my body, whereas telling myself I’m safe does not. If I’m in a situation that I find threatening or anxiety provoking, my central nervous system goes into overdrive due to perceived danger. Trauma survivors unfortunately see danger where there isn’t any, thanks to an overactive amygdala and CNS. Studies have shown that brain scans of people with DID have enlarged amygdalas and less cortical volume in their brains. Early and chronic trauma actually changes brain structure. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29282709/ ) This is why CBT can’t be the only treatment for trauma. And this why just thinking positively and being grateful won’t heal someone.

Movement is what helps me feel empowered, because it is making my body feel empowered. It helps my body release the fear and paralysis that has been embedded in my cells since I was a baby. This is not to say that CBT doesn’t help me, it’s just not effective on its own. I have to be in a calm state, or in my window of tolerance. Connecting words to the feelings and somatic experiences are definitely the next step and important, but you must first find your window of tolerance to benefit from top down approaches. Even if I’m doing well with CNS regulation, which I have greatly improved in the past few years, toxic positivity and unsolicited advice is still harmful. The good news is I’ve seen a lot of trauma therapists on social media talking about this lately. They’re making memes about the harmfulness of toxic positivity to create awareness and validate people’s emotions.

Therapists understand that trauma survivors often grew up having to suppress emotions, were invalidated, and made to feel guilty. Toxic positivity just perpetuates this. Everyone’s feelings are valid. If someone truly has good intentions towards a trauma survivor, giving them advice is not helpful. That’s why therapists never give advice (at least good therapists don’t). If you want to help a survivor, just listen to them and validate their feelings. Meet them where they’re at. Telling someone to be positive and grateful can add the burden of guilt onto someone who is already depressed and struggling. They desperately want to feel happy, positive, and grateful, but they’re not able to. Therapists understand this, but unfortunately the general public doesn’t, and therefore social media can be a painful place for trauma survivors.

When I was struggling with the memories of losing a child, I told myself not to force myself to feel grateful because it wasn’t where I was at. I knew that if I was gentle with myself, I’d eventually move out of the pain to a place of healing and gratefulness. Some days it was difficult to parent, because I felt like I should be grateful for my beautiful daughter, but I was consumed by grief. I knew it would pass in time, but I couldn’t rush the process. I let the suffering parts of me listen to whatever music they needed, and I let them talk to me and my therapist about their pain. My therapist is very patient and never pushes me to see the bright side or feel grateful. She knows that will come in time. As we started to feel better, I was able to really enjoy parenting again. I was able to look at my daughter and feel the joy of having her with me. I know that grieving parents have to deal with unsolicited advice all the time. Someone I know lost one of her twin boys to sudden infant death syndrome. People actually told her to be grateful that she still had another son. I can’t even begin to explain how hurtful this was to her. People told her to focus on the positives, and to let go of her guilt. As I said, these things can happen in time, but you need to meet people where they are at, and you absolutely can’t rush healing or the grieving process.

Another harmful comment a lot of trauma survivors hear is “everything happens for a reason.” This statement is bullshit. Some people just experience more hardship and pain in life, and it’s already difficult for trauma survivors to understand the meaning of life when there doesn’t seem to be reason for why they suffered more than others. You can’t tell somebody who has been through hell to turn their struggles into strengths. Obviously they either will or they won’t. That’s up to the individual and the path they choose. All it does is make the survivor feel worse, because they don’t feel like they’re healing fast enough. Some days it’s all they can do to get out of bed and make sure they eat something. They deserve credit for this, but you don’t often see people meeting them where they’re at and giving them positive reinforcement for their small successes.

Therapists don’t give advice because it can feel like criticism. Oh, if you only do these things, your life will be so much better… yeah easy for you to say, are you in my head? Do you experience what I do? I sincerely hope you don’t ever have to. The fact that I’m even alive is a huge achievement for me. I’m actually one of the healthiest people I know, physically and mentally, and yet people like to use my diagnosis to criticize me and suggest to me what I should do to heal. Facing your shit is one of the hardest things you can do in life, but it’s up to you to decide if you want to even go there. It’s a long, arduous journey. Most people take the easy route and repress their pain. They find distraction after distraction and avoid therapy, or they go to therapy to say they went but don’t do the work. I’m not judging, because they may not be ready, and it’s scary to face your own darkness inside. If people choose to continue on a path of poor coping skills and avoidance, that’s up to them. Avoidance, after all, is one of the telltale signs of PTSD. From my experience as a therapist, you can’t force someone out of avoidance, even if you try to be gentle. All you can do is meet them where they’re at, and show them that you care about their wellbeing regardless.

Positive memes and inspirational quotes will never help a trauma survivor. Listening and supporting them will. No amount of philosophical quotes and pop psychology will work. All it can do is harm. If you’re a trauma survivor and you find yourself being hurt by people’s comments or passive aggressive memes, please set emotional boundaries. You can even say something about toxic positivity and unsolicited advice if you explain it in a calm and rational way. You can’t really tell someone to stop posting these things, but you can let them know that it can be harmful to some. At least they will hopefully gain a new perspective.

The great thing about self love is I no longer care what people think, and I’m not trying to stay quiet to keep people happy anymore. People think they’re helping, but often they’re using my diagnosis to judge me and put me in my place if I did something they disagree with. If someone doesn’t like me for who I am right now in this moment, then their judgment or affection is not needed. Sometimes they have good intentions, so I try to be kind, but I’m not going to stay quiet anymore. My wellbeing is important, and I’ve worked very hard to get where I am. When I dated, I met a lot of people who had done almost no work on themselves but still somehow felt superiority over me because their trauma history wasn’t as severe (on a side note, it’s not a good idea to tell someone you barely know about your trauma history. If you get closer with them, you can tell them bits and pieces until you establish trust. Unfortunately, people I’ve met but don’t trust found this blog, but that says more about them than me). Anyway, the point is I actually felt bad for them, because they used others to feel superior and didn’t feel good inside. I feel good because I love people where they’re at, and I set boundaries if I need to. Sometimes these boundaries seem harsh, especially when I cut off contact with someone, but I need to look out for myself before anyone else. I deserve to be loved for who I am.

Consider the fact that looking inside and examining yourself is more helpful to the world than posting empty quotes. Don’t get me wrong, some are great and make you think. I’ve even posted inspirational quotes before, because they spoke to me. When I posted them, I did so because they resonated with me in some way. Although I can’t help but wonder if maybe I hurt or invalidated someone in the process without being aware of it. I even wear a bracelet that says, “this too shall pass.” This can be seen as toxic positivity because sometimes pain lasts a long time. I wear it because it helps me remember that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but sometimes, as my therapist said, the tunnel is long and seems endless. When someone feels this way, a phrase like that may not help. It’s best to validate where people are at, as she did. I’ve had countless people tell me to lighten up and stop thinking so negatively, but have they seen what I’ve seen or felt what I’ve felt? Trauma has forever changed me, but I like who I am. I’m fortunately at the point where I’ve been able to turn some of my challenges into strengths, but I understand why other people may not be there yet. I understand because I was there too. My trauma has given me a lot of compassion and understanding for human suffering, and for that I’m grateful. This grateful feeling came in time, but it took years. It happened when I was ready, not because I read something that told me to feel grateful.

If someone loves you, they love you for your weaknesses and faults as well as your strengths. Someone who loves me knows that I’m strong as hell even on my worst days, months, or even years. I guess I’m still waiting to find that person. For now, I’ll just be proud of myself for how far I’ve come. I’ve survived things a lot of people would’ve killed themselves to get away from. My mind has been shattered into many pieces, but I’m still worthy of love. I may not ever be fully whole, because integration might not be the end result. I may consolidate many of the fragments, but I think that a lot of the personalities who function in the world will remain, including some of the kids. However, we’ve gotten better and better at cooperating. If anything, I think it makes my life more interesting. I’m not broken, I’m just different. My differences make me an awesome person to get to know. Of course, I’m still a work in progress, but every human is, and a decent human will continue to work on themselves and learn until the day they die. I hope every trauma survivor can feel like this one day, but if you’re reading this and you’re not proud of yourself yet, it’s ok. You are enough. Your struggles and mistakes don’t define you. You are enough as you are right now, and the world needs you.

My final thought is this: If posting inspirational memes and quotes makes you happy, and you think it helps others, then go for it. I’m just hoping that people will stop and think about the message some of these posts are sending people who are struggling. I do believe that people mean well, but sometimes they can inadvertently hurt people even with good intentions.

I like quotes like this because they’re more validating.
I sent this to my best friend once, and we were both amused, because everyone knows somebody who has done this at some point.

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