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Resisting the Lure of Toxic Positivity While Chronically Ill

COPD Basics

April 20, 2024

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Photography by Hayden Williams/Stocksy United

Photography by Hayden Williams/Stocksy United

by Hannah Shewan Stevens

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Francis Kuehnle, MSN, RN-BC

•••••

by Hannah Shewan Stevens

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Francis Kuehnle, MSN, RN-BC

•••••

Chronic illness is hard to live with, but coping by responding with excessive positivity can suppress our real feelings.

Those who live with chronic illnesses know all too well how frequently people shower you with meaningless platitudes like “just be positive” and “mind over matter.”

Of course, how we feel mentally affects our physical health, but being chronically ill also sucks sometimes. It’s OK to acknowledge that reality. But often, when we do, we’re told we’re being overdramatic or to force ourselves to “think our way back to being healthy.”

It’s time to reject toxic positivity and find coping mechanisms that actually work for you instead of methodologies that punish you for having “negative feelings.”

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What is toxic positivity?

“Toxic positivity is an expectation that no matter how serious a situation or diagnosis is, a person should maintain an ongoing optimistic and positive outlook and attitude regardless of how serious the circumstances are,” said Chicago-based clinical social worker Iris Waichler, MSW, LCSW.

This invasive method of communication shows up in countless ways, often slipping out of people’s mouths without them even noticing. Sometimes, it comes from the inside, led by an internal battle to just “get over it,” but it typically arises when people place their life view onto others.

“Toxic positivity often looks like someone giving you a motivational quote instead of actually listening, helping, or being there for you,” said Kitty Underhill, a body and self-acceptance coach from London, England. “For example, you could be struggling and communicating that to a friend, and they shut down the conversation with a statement like ‘good vibes only’ or dismissing it as being ‘low frequency.’

“Toxic positivity also looks like using buzzphrases like ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ and telling you that you need to have a more positive attitude rather than hearing you out — it’s an emotional cop-out,” she added.

The impact of toxic positivity is wide-ranging and pervasive, sometimes hiding beneath the surface for years before we’re able to recognize that it’s prevented us from feeling the full spectrum of human emotion without feeling guilty for not being cheerful enough for those around us.

“Toxic positivity may cause people to believe their feelings are not worthwhile, create self-doubt and shame, and make them believe their feelings are invalid,” said Waichler. “The unintended consequences may be enhanced insecurity, which lessens self-confidence and self-worth.”

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How can it show up in our lives with chronic illness?

The effects may largely be the same, but chronically ill people deal with another poisonous layer when facing toxic positivity: disbelief.

Too often, disabled and chronically ill people are encouraged to “think themselves well” because it’s “mind over matter,” but this neglects reality. A positive outlook can improve someone’s overall well-being. However, it’s not a magical cure for incurable illness.

“A healthy person may not have a real understanding of the physical, medical, and psychological ramifications that chronic illness has on an individual,” Waichler said. “A healthy person’s attempt to “cheer them up” or be unrealistically positive can create feelings of alienation, resentment, and anger for the person on the receiving end.”

Toxic positivity is dismissive because it discards their feelings, insisting that they be processed on the other person’s terms. Unsurprisingly, this is a common occurrence between people with and without chronic illnesses, as it’s easily assumed that we’re being overdramatic or exaggerating our symptoms.

Faced with an onslaught of forced cheerfulness and disbelief, submitting to toxic positivity sometimes feels like the only option, but chronically ill and disabled people deserve to be heard.

“It can be easy to fall for toxic positivity, especially when a lot of ableism depends on disabled folks not speaking up about what they are experiencing and overriding their own comfort and pain levels to make abled folks feel more comfortable,” said Underhill.

“We must remember that toxic positivity is another way of shutting down unpalatable emotions and that our emotions still deserve to be heard and expressed,” she added.

Understanding the difference between toxic positivity and genuine positivity

“Genuine positivity makes space for the negative and doesn’t try to write it off or bat it away,” said Underhill. “Genuine positivity helps you to see things from different angles and perspectives, which can be helpful if we’re getting tunnel vision from feeling hopeless, angry, or upset from experiencing chronic pain issues.”

Where genuine positivity leaves spaces for pain while searching for light, comparatively, toxic positivity shuts down the conversation and obliterates the beautiful spectrum of our emotions.

Resisting the seductive pull of toxic positivity is exhausting, and sometimes, we fall under its spell before it’s possible to throw up a shield.

“If you’ve succumbed to toxic positivity, consider taking a step back to evaluate why you acquiesced,” said Carissa Hodgson, LCSW, OSW-C, director of programs and community outreach at Bright Spot Network and a clinical social worker. “Is it because you don’t have anyone who can authentically support you? Are you struggling with accepting your feelings about an experience? What is it that you need?”

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Building your defenses

“To get rid of toxic positivity, it’s worth asking yourself the question, ‘Why do I feel like I cannot hold space for harder emotions?’” said Underhill.

“It’s also worth remembering that no emotion has a moral value. Emotions are not ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” she added. “Emotions are information that we can learn from and take into account.”

Allow yourself to feel everything you need to feel by granting yourself the gift of patience. There is no better defense against toxic positivity than the freedom to feel your emotions without judging them or suffocating them.

Confronting the toxic positivity around us

Try to practice patience when dealing with toxically positive people. It’s hard when you’re so regularly bombarded with it, but know that they are probably trying to empathize. It’s human instinct to jump straight to suggesting solutions. We all do it, even when it’s unwanted.

“Understand that the person is trying to be helpful,” said Waichler. “Help them to then understand how what they said makes you feel.

“Tell a well-meaning loved one with toxic positivity that you appreciate that they are trying to be supportive and positive about your medical condition,” she continued.

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Developing healthier coping mechanisms

It’s crucial to develop additional coping mechanisms that manage the mental impact of chronic illness to resist the lure of toxic positivity long term.

“Educate yourselves about the medical condition and how it will progress so your expectations are realistic,” advised Waichler. “It will help you prepare for changes that will evolve in the future.”

Broaden your circle of friends to ensure that your support network is full of people who will understand your experiences with chronic illness. Your loved ones will support you, but unless they also have a chronic illness, they will struggle to understand. Fellow chronically ill people may be better suited to supporting you without relying on toxic positivity to do so.

However, be wary, too. Even the most well-developed support groups can fall prey to toxic positive influences.

“Toxic positivity is often a trojan horse found in online support groups and discussion boards — seemingly helpful and cheery but completely dismissive of the real struggles people are having,” said Hodgson.

As an additional shield, she suggests that people “Create an empowering mantra that entitles you to your feelings, such as ‘My feelings are real’ or ‘I have a right to feel how I want to feel,’ so when you see a dismissive statement, you can repeat your mantra to yourself and keep on reading.”

Medically reviewed on April 20, 2024

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About the author

Hannah Shewan Stevens

Hannah Shewan Stevens is a freelance journalist, speaker, press officer, and newly qualified sex educator. She typically writes about health, disability, sex, and relationships. After working for press agencies and producing digital video content, she’s now focused on feature writing and on best practices for reporting on disability. Follow her on Twitter.

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