The Peril of Toxic Positivity — Too Real to Pretend

Teresa Wright-Johnson avatar

by Teresa Wright-Johnson |

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A banner for Teresa's column, which depicts a group of people cheering as they look over a beautiful forest landscape.

“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.

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Are You Overdosed on Toxic Positivity? Take the #RealTalkRare Challenge

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.

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You Don’t Always Need to Fix It

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.

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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.

Comments

Donna Manvich9 avatar

Donna Manvich9

This has more to do with the person telling us to look on the bright side than it does with us. My take on this is that it is borne out of inner fear being experienced by the other person. A person who cannot comprehend what we are going through is scared. By saying look on the bright side, they are appeasing themselves. I am not sure I blame them. But as far as I can tell, this is a way for other people to lessen the impact of the uncomfortable feeling others get when they speak to someone with a serious illness. I do not believe that those of us suffering from MS also suffer from toxic positivity. There is no way to jettison ourselves out of our own reality. However, those close to us that really have very little conception of what our bodies are going through are afraid that we might be telling the truth either through our visual disability or verbal communication. The response then becomes, "no no, it isn't that bad, look on the bright side". The only way for others to relate to our chronic illness is to minimize it by Toxic positivity. It is only toxic to us because we live with the disease. To them, it is a salvo.

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Jerry McClung avatar

Jerry McClung

Good column! Amen!

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Cay avatar

Cay

I am so glad you are addressing this issue and naming it. It's infuriating and demoralizing and happens all too often to those of us that have ms. I haven't gotten the strength yet to speak forthrightly to anyone expressing toxic positivity. The social rules make that practically impossible in most situations.

Hopefully toxic positivity will become better understood, so thanks for writing about it.

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Russ Spencer avatar

Russ Spencer

Hello Teresa, I read another article similar to yours recently. Both are very well written and make a valuable point. I have also read many replies to online articles that appear to be either aggressive or blindly partisan. I hope the following is neither of those things. My wife suffers from MS and looking on the bright side has been something we have both thought long and hard about. A close friend dies and you can celebrate a life. Bad luck arrives and some of us can be grateful that we live in modern, wealthy societies where there is help for the less well off and some of the best medical treatments in the world. But it is the illness itself (MS) that we have considered the most. Suppose everyone in the world could fly. Everyone could soar like seagulls and fly high above the ground. But, due to a flying illness, I find I can't fly. And I feel terrible and handicapped and ruined. And people suggest I look on the bright side. I would actually be in exactly the same position I am today, sat in the sun, drinking coffee and reading online articles. I can't fly today and I won't be able to fly tomorrow - but there are different ways of looking at that. It is only a thought and in no way a criticism of anyone or any viewpoint. And I do understand the pain and crippling side of the disease. My very best wishes to you.

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Carol Hill avatar

Carol Hill

100 times YES.

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Teresa Wright-Johnson avatar

Teresa Wright-Johnson

Hi Donna,
Thanks for reading the column and sharing your thought provoking and genuine perspective. I agree that discussing MS and all that we endure is difficult for others, especially those who love and care for us. I also agree that there are occasions when "look on the bright side" becomes balm to quell the fear and uncertainty in others. In having these difficult discussions, we shed light on the effects of "toxic positivity" while maintaining hope and faith. I've learned that grief and gratitude can coexist, and hope can thrive, even amidst pain. Please take care and best wishes to you.

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Teresa Wright-Johnson avatar

Teresa Wright-Johnson

Hi Jerry,
Thanks for taking the time to read the column and for your comment. You are appreciated. Please take care and best wishes to you.

Teresa

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Teresa Wright-Johnson avatar

Teresa Wright-Johnson

Hi Cay,

Thanks for reading the column and for your candid response. I believe there is great power in having difficult discussions. Together, it is my hope that we will dismantle the social construct that silence our pain. May you be strengthened in your journey knowing you're not alone. Best wishes to you.

Teresa

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Teresa Wright-Johnson avatar

Teresa Wright-Johnson

Hi Russ,
Thank you for reading the column and for your honest feedback. We agree that grief and gratitude can coexist and joy can be found in the midst of pain. Personally, I count my blessings and my troubles at times. My intention in this writing is to remove the stigma and construct that often tells us we should remain silent in our pain. Faith and a positive attitude is often a prerequisite to withstanding adversity, yet I believe that we must allow ourselves to fully ingest those feelings that arise. There are occurrences where we cannot do it alone and may have to summon help. It is my intention to discuss this topic, and contribute to an environment where healing can occur both internally and socially.

Again, I appreciate you and this thought provoking response and I, too, agree that there are always different ways of looking at life. It is my hope that we can raise awareness, standing in support of our communities as they work through adversity, take up space and stand in their authenticity.

My best wishes to you and yours.

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Patsy Rodriguez avatar

Patsy Rodriguez

aWhen I was finally diagnosed with MS I bought a book on living with chronic illness. It suggested that when someone asks how you are you should lie and stick to positive route. If you told the truth they would never ask again.
I wound up pretending everything was fine and being frustrated because people didn’t understand how hard things really were.

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Teresa Wright-Johnson avatar

Teresa Wright-Johnson

Hi Carol,
Thanks for reading the column and for sharing your thoughts. It is appreciated!

Teresa

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Teresa Wright-Johnson avatar

Teresa Wright-Johnson

Hi Patsy,
Thanks for sharing. I understand your frustration in feeling as though you have to hide your truth. I am sorry you experienced this. There is a difference between having a positive mindset and stifling one's emotions in real time. This journey can be difficult. Please remember that your experiences matter and you are not alone. There are many online support groups that may be of assistance. Best wishes to you.

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MarkUpnorth avatar

MarkUpnorth

Having been diagnosed on my birthday, (had to look up the year from the computer, then calculate), almost 25 years ago. I've bed through the bad, the ugly, and the unbearable this disease has to offer. BUT, I thrive on positivity. Yes, my parents passed away just a few years ago, and they never understood. But I looked so good. Anything they heard or saw went in one ear and out the other without ever registering. Never any compassion. BUT, MY Positivity for myself, gifted by on diagnosis day, in the hospital while my Neurologist attempted to "reset my immune system"? with massive dosed of steroids, my room mate in the hospital laid in his bed with his chest literally split open, covered only with clean sheets, after quadruple bypass surgery, and a steady stream of hospital personnel irrigating in an attempt to get rid of a I guess pretty nasty infection. Time went by, and my room mate got better, enough to leave at about the same time I did. Since then, "It can always be worse" was ingrained in my mind. BUT, we both survived, so on with life I went. Yes, only to live pushing onwards with the ugly disease. I kept working for Many years. Some of my "greatest accomplishments?" I learned to climb a ladder without the use of my legs, okay, my arms did 95%. I could bounce off walking into buildings in the city getting to my next estimate, not to stand out because the neighbor hood was filled with drunks and druggies, as I made my way to the xyz hospital for work there, I simply thought, I fit right in! Always, trying to keep a positive attitude. Yes, life with M.S. is a struggle, always, as it is trying to see the fine print on my XL screen computer trying to type this, but, I could write pages and pages of all the good I've accomplished, and continue to. I'm down to my favorite assistive devices, a shopping cart, or a power driven hand lawn mower without the need to wear a 25# vest loaded with ice packs, and a cooling headband. Though a sweat drip band these days does keep the sweat out of my eyes when it's really hot cutting the grass. I simply keep on thinking of the 45* below blast freezer estimate that I did in my winter coat, a windbreaker, when the facility personnel kept trying to give me this arctic gear, including gloves I could never write notes in. When I came out, I never felt so refreshed in my life! Jokingly asked when I could do it again. How I didn't get frostbitten in that long no one can explain. Anyway, I refuse to ever feel sorry for what could have been, and focus on what it can be, and push ever harder to try and get there. Okay my expectations may be a bit lower, but I loved fishing since a kid. All those years too busy to do so, only dream about it. Now I can fish!!! When..., and if...BUT I CAN!
I LIVE and THRIVE on POSITIVITY. I know perfectly healthy people, except for minor things I don't even see when I get them, like a sore or achy xyz, and they're always NEGATIVE. Definitely not the way I want to be, as they are more crippled than I. Please, don't poison positivity. Life is better Positive, than Negative, no matter what it is.

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