The Peril of Toxic Positivity — Too Real to Pretend
“Look on the bright side.” Someone just said this to me days ago regarding the loss of a very dear friend. The bright side? I demanded to know what the bright side of this situation could be. There was no satiable explanation given in that moment. I am also aware of the individual’s intention. They were simply trying, yet miserably failing, to cheer me up. It was an attempt to proffer encouragement during this difficult time.
Verily, I encounter this situation frequently. Multiple sclerosis and chronic illness have often subjected me to the opinions and good intentions of others. People employ this false sense of optimism to explain one’s reality. I find this both disturbing and dismissive. It is clearly “toxic positivity.”
Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dismal one’s situation is, a positive mindset should always be occupied. The term infers that no matter what you may be going through, if you find the positive aspect of the situation, the grim condition will be more appealing and easier to withstand. This is a complete fallacy.
I, alongside fellow columnists Jenn Powell and Jamie Hughes, have agreed to join the #RealTalkRare challenge for the publisher of this website, BioNews. We pledged to use our voices and platforms to combat the social and emotional stigma surrounding toxic positivity.
Kicking off the challenge, Jenn wrote about “overdosing” on toxic positivity. She formulates that being pressured to look on the bright side of situations stifles her from sharing details of her life that may need to be addressed. She writes of the need to be honest in her space. Jamie elucidates that holding space for others, allowing them to sit in their truth, will combat toxic positivity, ultimately leading us to display our authentic selves.
In my life I’ve experienced much loss, adversity, and grief. I have been offered the nauseating, soul-stirring advice to which I am referring, the rationalizations of “at least you’re still here,” “be glad you can still walk,” “it could always be worse,” “they aren’t suffering anymore,” “God makes no mistakes,” and of course, “at least you don’t look sick.” Although there is an element of truth in each and every statement, the issue here is I am struggling. I don’t need a distraction, I need support. The freedom to just be, without judgment, taking the time I need.
As a believer who has great faith, I regularly strive to employ an optimistic standpoint. I am clearly aware of what a positive mindset can do. I am also certain it is not my responsibility to make others comfortable in my discomfort. Anger, discomfort, chronic illness, and adversity are common to the human experience. Although unpleasant, they demand space. I have learned to be obedient to everything I feel, knowing that in order for me to get through anything, I have to be OK allowing it to sit with me for a while. If I am negligent in honoring my feelings, my mental health unravels. Such are the perils of toxic positivity.
What isn’t revealed cannot be healed. I have witnessed far too many people put on facades while internally dismantling. They succumb to the pressure of toxic positivity, to needing to conform to the unrealistic societal norm that we seek. Life is full of joy and pain. Both must be recognized. If I feign or hide my agony, or if I am negligent in allowing myself to fully exist with my feelings in real time, I will self-destruct. My repressed feelings will figuratively become the flesh-eating bacteria that destroys the innermost parts of me.
Equally important, I will assess myself and my reaction to the agony of others. I, too, have been negligent by allowing myself to point out the “bright side” of given situations when someone is perceptibly pained. Now I listen with intention and have eradicated the need to “fix” the problem. I realize that my assignment is to simply listen, supporting the person as they need.
In closing, the term toxic positivity may be looked upon as a new phenomenon, ambitiously trending on social media platforms, yet for those of us in chronic illness communities and those who experience grief, we are overly familiar with the term. Employing optimism and having faith are virtuous but living under the pressure and false expectations of others to deduce your experiences will prolong personal suffering and may cause undue stress. Toxic positivity is a distraction that harms. Live your truth on your terms. Healing is an inside job.
Do you feel as though you have to put on a happy face regardless of how you are feeling? Have you ever felt that it is your responsibility to make others comfortable in your pain? What does being obedient to your feelings entail? Join the #RealTalkRare challenge — I would really like to hear about your experiences.
You are invited to follow my website at www.teresawrightjohnson.com.
Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.