Why telling someone to ‘think positive’ may not be as helpful as you might think, and what to do instead

In our current world of social media and positive vibes only posts, it’s important to be mindful that some of the platitudes and sayings that might help someone having a garden-variety bad day can actually be triggers for someone living with trauma.

We can generally assume that most people want to live a healthy, pain-free, abundant, and productive life. There are hundreds of motivational books and centered on “fake it ’til you make it” principles, which encourage people to “think positive,” “let it go,” “don’t sweat the small stuff,” etc. And these resources have undoubtedly helped countless people. Yet, for many trauma survivors searching for relief, these books and motivational coaches don’t help. And the reason is this:

Our bodies are the living library of everything that has happened to us. And trauma, whether physical or psychological, gets hardwired into our physical body. Trauma causes the nervous system to fight, flee or freeze, and for many survivors, their bodies are either stuck in one of these or alternate between the three and it’s difficult to re-write this conditioning. Often, people recovering from trauma are highly motivated, intelligent, overachievers, but the trauma they have experienced has left them hyperaware, hypervigilant, and hypercritical of themselves – it feels akin to trying to drive a race car stuck in first gear, with one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the break. So as much as someone may want to think positively, it is going to be an uphill battle until their nervous system starts to repair and feel safe, instead of being switched on all the time.

The other problem that comes with telling someone to think positively or providing a point of comparison, such as by saying ït’s not as bad as X”, is that we may inadvertently be minimizing their emotions and experience and giving the message that it’s not okay to feel whatever is that they are feeling. So many people who have experienced trauma have also experienced being silenced in some way, whether by those that hurt them or those that failed to hear their pleas.

So, if someone you know is in the process of recovering from trauma, please meet them where they are. Hold space for them if you have the capacity to, with as much empathy as you can muster, and allow them to lean in and feel in, in the safety of your presence. Because, honestly, the deepest healing for trauma happens when we allow ourselves to be truly seen by another and have them love us still, despite the wounds life has inflicted upon us.


Big love,