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The Harm of Toxic Positivity (and What You Can Say Instead)

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I have to start this post with a confession of sorts, dear readers. As a health blogger and guide, I walk a fine line. I do what I do because I have struggled, and I want to spare others similar misery. If I can share useful information and techniques that help people ease their physical and mental pain, my mission on Earth is complete.

That said, I never want to give people the impression that I’m some genius guru or that the methods that help me manage my conditions will work for everyone. Here’s the thing, folks — there are infinite variations in the human body, and while certain allopathic and holistic approaches may work for some, they don’t work for everybody. My mission is to present science-based information through the lens of someone who is also a patient, not an impartial clinician in a lab coat. It’s not to make people feel worse if certain methods fail them.

As such, I want to emphasize the positive in my work, but I also want to keep it real. Why am I confessing all of this to you now? One, it is true, and I feel it is necessary because I value transparency and honesty. I also deem it kind because toxic positivity is anything but nice.

If you are a fellow spoonie, no doubt you have heard your share of advice to “just think positive.” Such advice is well-meant, and science does indicate optimistic attitudes improve health outcomes.

However, believing you can magically think yourself well can complicate your recovery when you feel pressured to deny your reality and pretend you’ve improved when your body aches like a truck ran over it. Furthermore, if you have a mental illness related to trauma, you might dwell in such a negative system that telling you to “just cheer up” can sound synonymous with “just grow a new set of legs.” Your mindset does not change that quickly after a lifetime of emotional abuse, especially when society echoes many of the toxic messages you learned as a child.

That’s why I would like to see an end to the doctrine of “just think positive, and everything will be OK.” Experience teaches us it isn’t always true. Instead, when supporting a friend or giving well-meaning advice, strive to be validating and kind.

What is toxic positivity?

Please don’t mistake my intent for wanting to be a negative Nancy. Positive thinking is a glorious, necessary thing, especially for those of us with chronic health conditions. Spoonies are among the most optimistic people in the world. We have to be if we hope to keep going when doctors utter dire pronouncements like, “no known cure.”

Looking on the bright side and taking positive actions does improve health outcomes. The problem comes in when outsiders look at your situation and determine your attitude creates your issues without knowing all the facts. Then, they invalidate your needs and make you feel like a guilt-ridden failure for taking an antidepressant or using a cane or walker instead of merely smiling more or exercising your legs.

Positivity becomes toxic when it denies your reality. Please adopt this boundary and hold fast to it — you have the absolute right to and ownership of your feelings. I want to say that again because it’s so vital:

You have the right to feel your feelings.

Giving yourself permission to feel matters. Adherents of toxic positivity treat negative emotions as inherently bad, which, evolutionarily speaking, is BS. Humans wouldn’t have survived for very long in a world of lions, tigers and bears if emotions like fear and outrage didn’t exist. Without them, we wouldn’t flee danger or fight back when attacked.

That doesn’t mean we need to let negative emotions control our actions and reactions. Psychologist, neurologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl writes our freedom lies between the external stimulus and our chosen response to it. Mastering this emotional regulation is a principal objective of many therapy sessions. Maybe a reprimand from an overbearing boss (stimulus) compels you to drink (response) — you learn to pause and choose a healthier coping mechanism like going for a walk.

However, before you can make that transformative change, you have to first recognize and honor your boss’ mistreatment made you feel angry, targeted and helpless. Only then can you rationally think through your immediate response (walking away) and your long-term coping strategy (dusting off the old resume). If you don’t shake hands with those unpleasant emotions first, you’ll continue stuffing them down in unhealthy ways.

Positivity becomes problematic for the chronically ill when people assume we are using our mental or physical illnesses to shirk our responsibilities. I’d like to challenge any nearsighted individual who has ever accused a chronically ill person of exaggerating their impairment to get out of a duty to try the following experiment. Go without your glasses or contacts for a week — no cheating, not even to drive or work. I’m sorry, did I already hear an, “I can’t do that?”

Of course, you can. Just repeat, “I have 20/20 vision” over and over to yourself. Put on a self-help hypnosis recording every night before bed so it infiltrates your subconscious. Be sure to explain your methodology to the kind officer who cites you for driving without corrective lenses after you wipe out your neighbor’s mailbox.

This example is extreme to be sure, but I chose it to illustrate how it doesn’t matter where your disability stems from — you can’t just “positively think” your way out of certain things. Even if your chronic pain shares a link with unresolved trauma, undoing a lifetime of negative messaging doesn’t happen overnight just because someone says, “Cheer up! It’s all OK now.”

The bottom line: Recognizing negative emotions and physical pain is vital to human existence. Thinking positively is beneficial when it is something you choose for yourself as part of your self-care strategy. However, you shouldn’t feel guilty for having a bad day.

How toxic positivity negatively impacts health outcomes.

I feel the need to address toxic positivity even at the risk of sounding like a negative Nancy and making people not like my blog as much. Why? Not doing so could potentially lead to adverse health outcomes, and helping sick people feel as healthy as possible is my ultimate mission in life.

Toxic positivity can prevent patients from getting the care they desperately need. Consider this: It takes an average of seven and a half years to get an endometriosis diagnosis, even though nearly one in 10 women have the condition. Why does it take so long?

Much of the problem stems from physician bias — far too many providers dismiss female pain, even when it is severe. However, another factor is the way many of us are so conditioned to pleasing authority that we downplay our symptoms or pretend a prescribed treatment method is working more effectively than it is.

The pressure to “get better” grows even more fierce when you have a chronic illness. Many of us secretly suspect our doctors roll their eyes and say, “Oh, so-and-so again,” when we walk in the door. We desperately want to give the people who care for us some good news, so we downplay the negative, and live with unnecessary pain.

Toxic positivity becomes a nightmare when you cope with mental health disorders. People don’t understand therapy is a long process and behavioral changes don’t happen overnight. It is beyond invalidating and frustrating to spend years trying different medications and going to various counselors only to have others say, “Are you still depressed? Cheer up, already!”

You might feel so pressured to put on a false smiling face, you start to isolate yourself more than you already do. Then, loneliness exacerbates your symptoms, and you end up in a downward spiral.

How to uplift someone while validating their experience.

If I had my druthers, I would ban the words “cheer up” and “calm down” from everyone’s vocabulary. However, prohibitions are so negative — let’s talk about some positive ways to uplift someone in mental or physical pain. See what I did there, wink, wink?

1. Ask for a minute.

You’re human, too. You probably don’t say, “cheer up” to be mean — you do so as an instinctive reaction when someone else feels sad. It’s OK to admit you don’t know what to say. Showing this vulnerability makes you much more human and humane than replying with a knee-jerk platitude.

Use the pause to ask whether your reply is true, necessary and above all, kind. Do you honestly think an obese person hasn’t asked themselves if shedding the weight will improve their condition? There’s a reason for the excess pounds, and it probably isn’t any of your business.

If you still can’t think of anything appropriate, try one of the following supportive and validating phrases:

“Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me this.”

“It sounds like you’re feeling X. Is that right, or am I off the mark?”

“That sounds really challenging, and you are showing a lot of strength in how you deal with it.”

2. Ask for clarification.

Sometimes, your friend or loved one might only need to vent. Remember, you aren’t their therapist, and they might not necessarily be looking for an answer to their problem. It might be helpful to ask, “Would you like to blow off steam or do you want advice,” when the conversation starts to avoid mixed messages.

As a spoonie, I know sometimes I would love to hear all about the latest pain-relieving gadget you tried and loved. Other times, though, I just want to scream, “Ugh, my back hurts so bad,” without feeling a whiner.

3. Ask what you can do.

Instead of offering advice at all, why not ask what your loved one needs? Doing so validates their experience and shows you care. Sometimes, simply sitting there with them as they go through a challenging time is the best assistance anyone could give. Other times, running to the store to pick up a needed medication or helping them straighten up their house during a bad flare shows compassion.

Saying “just think positive” never fixed anything — let’s try validation and kindness instead.

Positivity is a glorious thing, but it isn’t a panacea. A dose of optimism may improve your treatment outcomes, but it alone won’t cure you.

Let’s face it: Physical and mental illnesses suck. Instead of telling people to, “just think positive,” let’s try a little validation and kindness instead. Encouraging open and honest communication makes everyone feel better — and that is a very good thing.

You can follow Jennifer’s journey on Living With HM.

Getty image by MrKornFlakes

Originally published: May 15, 2021
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