You know the feeling. You’re confiding in a close friend, complaining about something awful someone even more awful did to you at work, in the pub, or wherever. It feels good to let it all out, like something has lifted. A 10kg weight, perhaps, or an Albatross, depending on your symbolic preferences. It feels less good, however, when the friend simply shrugs. “Oh, you’ll be fine!” they might say. “It could be worse!”
This, I’ve now learnt, is a common experience, one that was recently dubbed “whitelighting”. While the behaviour is nowhere near as insidious as its sibling “gaslighting” – a form of abuse that refers to manipulating someone into questioning their own sanity or recollection of events – it can have a damning effect on us on an emotional and psychological level. The key difference is that while gaslighting is characterised by negativity and strategies of undermining, whitelighting may seem largely positive… at least at first.
The phrase was coined in a 2021 article published on Elephant Journal: “Whitelighting is when a person with whom we are communicating (usually about discomfort or pain) attempts to glaze over our experience with a more positive outlook,” it explains. “They don’t mean to devalue or dehumanise our lived reality, but that is exactly what happens when someone takes a positive paintbrush to our feelings and experiences.”
It has happened to me many times, just as I’m sure it has also happened to you. As the writer explains, it doesn’t come from a place of malice but merely one of disinterest and nonchalance. I recently spoke to a friend about feelings of insecurity I’d experienced at a social occasion, where I’d felt as if someone I’d been chatting to had been incredibly rude and dismissive of me. But rather than listening to what I said and validating those feelings, the friend simply told me to move on from what they claimed wasn’t “that bad”.
Ostensibly, the “whitelighting” concept makes sense. It’s frustrating when you feel as if someone isn’t really engaging with your problems. Or if they seem more inclined to brush them off because they either can’t be bothered to help, or your negativity elicits some of their own discomfort. “While the intention behind whitelighting might stem from a place of kindness and the desire to uplift others, it inadvertently serves to negate the authenticity of the other person’s experiences,” says Jason Ward, psychotherapist and clinical supervisor at Nightingale Hospital, London. “This act of painting a rosy picture over someone else’s feelings and experiences can be subtly dehumanising and disconnecting, as it denies individuals the space to process and understand their emotions fully.”
It sounds accurate, but how helpful is it to single out this form of behaviour with a label? That’s common practice today, of course. Feel something negative. Create a buzzy term for it and/or use it on social media. Feel better. I get it. But how much should we pathologise our own behaviour?
“New terminology evolves all the time, and I’m not convinced by this one,” says Dr Sally Austen, consultant clinical psychologist. “From the author’s description, there seems [to be] an element of blame aimed at the person who does not validate our feelings accurately, helpfully or immediately.” But why do we expect an expert or insightful response from a friend as opposed to, say, a trained therapist or psychological professional?
Perhaps the real problem exhibited by so-called “whitelighting” is that we expect too much of our friends. “Most of the time, we are not clear about our own feelings, so to expect others to recognise our feelings is unrealistic,” says Dr Austen. What’s more, it can take the focus away from learning to validate our own feelings, which is an incredibly important – and often overlooked – skill. It’s also crucial to recognise that one person cannot, nor should not, give us everything we need emotionally. There are different friends for different things.
“I expect different things from an old friend than I do of a colleague,” says Dr Austen. “I know my friend X is able to ‘hold’ my feelings but colleague Y would run a mile. It would be appropriate for me to share my feelings with my sister over a glass of wine, but not with your sister who I have never met, for example. Ultimately coping with our feelings is our own responsibility and it seems to me oddly self-obsessed to expect everyone to share that responsibility.”
It’s an indictment of modern society if we think otherwise – that our feelings are someone else’s fault or responsibility. It’s not hard to see where this mentality comes from, though. Take a quick look through TikTok and you’ll find endless videos about “self-love” and prioritising yourself and your own “boundaries”. But this advice isn’t about self-love or boundaries at all – instead, it’s about removing any accountability from yourself.
If you’re experiencing negativity of any kind, TikTok will tell you to aim it at your ex, for example, or your parents. In some cases, this might be true. But it isn’t always. It’s ironic that the self-love movement will almost never encourage you to take a hard look at yourself, since we need to realise the part we play in our own emotional wellbeing. We have to, at least if we’re ever going to harness control over it.
Moreover, how much do we really want our friends to constantly validate and indulge everything we say to them? “Much of what we display is a ‘lie’ and, for now, needs to stay a lie,” Dr Austen explains. “When the hairdresser asks me if I have anything nice planned for the weekend, for example, I do not want them to see through my consciously cheery response and start empathising with the emotional [conflict] I really feel. When a colleague tells me they are furious that their neighbour has moved their bin, it is not my place to suggest that their anger may be a symptom of depression.”
Perhaps whitelighting isn’t so much a flaw of human communication but rather an integral part of it. “If we’re going to make it a verb then it must only describe how we think others have reacted to our feelings,” says Dr Austen. “But to conflate it with blame or criticism is the start of a slippery slope.”