Are You Overdosed on Toxic Positivity? Take the #RealTalkRare Challenge
Has anyone ever told you to be thankful that things aren’t worse after you’ve received upsetting news? Have you ever felt pressured by others to be grateful, even in the most difficult circumstances? It’s happened to me more times than I can remember. I now understand that both of these are examples of toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity refers to a distorted belief that pervasive happiness is the key to wellness, and that positivity is the only acceptable emotion. Given this, other normal human feelings like sadness, anxiety, anger, fear, and pain, which are perceived as negative, are invalidated, devalued, and dismissed.
Does this resonate with you? I bet it might if recent discussions about the phenomenon among staff here at BioNews, the parent company of MS News Today, are any indication.
We agreed that toxic positivity is pervasive and often misunderstood. In fact, many of us realized that we have inadvertently subjected ourselves and others to it when we were trying to be supportive. Through these conversations, we gained a deeper understanding of the concept, vented our pet peeves, shared ideas for solutions and healing, and laughed a lot.
We concluded that ultimately, when we have a better grasp of what toxic positivity looks like and how it affects us, and when we share ideas about how to navigate it, we begin to feel a little more at ease and at peace.
That’s why we created the #RealTalkRare challenge, which kicks off this week with this column and various social media content. As part of the initiative, I challenged myself to get real about my experiences with toxic positivity. I’d love to hear from you, too!
Stay tuned, as several of my fellow columnists will be joining the challenge and exploring the topic in coming weeks.
“It could be worse,” someone once said to me after I’d told them about a difficult appointment I’d had with a neurologist. I’d just been told that my disease had progressed, and just like that, everything had changed. I pondered the platitude I’d received in response, yet I disagreed in silence.
That was five years ago, and while I remained quiet at the time, I probably wouldn’t do the same if it had happened today. In that moment, I needed empathy and understanding, not a soulless cliché. When I received the latter, I was taken aback by its banality.
Eventually, I realized that by not being straightforward with the person I was talking to, I had started down a path of forced gratitude that would continue until I eventually overdosed on toxic positivity.
“Toxic positivity is absolutely a thing,” behavioral therapist Amy Brodsky noted in a post for the Cleveland Clinic. “It comes from a misinterpretation or an exaggeration of a really helpful tactic known as ‘positive reframing.'”
Cultural norms are responsible for perpetuating toxic positivity by overemphasizing joy and failing to acknowledge anxiety and depression. We are inundated with positive messaging on social media, television, and the radio, and in magazines. The toxicity lies in the inequity. Because happiness is so highly esteemed, we make people with other emotions feel excluded and ashamed.
There is a learned response to unwanted feelings and emotions. When I was young, I invalidated negative emotions. I knew that positivity was required. When I smiled instead of cried, I devalued my pain. And in doing so, I devalued myself.
I coped and hid those feelings. I stuffed them so far down that I fooled myself into believing they didn’t exist. But they did. And like a kettle under pressure, I erupted, and the fallout left me bewildered.
I am no longer scared by my emotions. All of my feelings are validated. I unlearned the need to quickly fix myself and others with a dose of positivity. While I enjoy being a positive person, I haven’t limited myself to being only that. When I finally accepted this, I could truly open my arms to others.
I’ve heard every anecdote imaginable for multiple sclerosis. Today, I’m more guarded than before about whom I’ll share details of my diagnosis with. I cherish and covet my feelings. And while a nudge toward positivity is always appreciated, I deserve to be respected if I choose to stay exactly where I need to be.
As a self-described optimist, I applaud the essence of positivity. It has helped me navigate so much of my life with MS. But positivity cannot be force-fed unto others or ourselves. I have binged on it only to turn into a human Hallmark card.
How has toxic positivity affected you? How have you coped with it? I invite you to join our #RealTalkRare challenge and start a dialogue with us and others about this all-too-common phenomenon. Let’s explore together, debunk myths, and help one another find greater calmness in our complicated lives. Please share your thoughts in the comments below, at our social media sites, and in the MS News Today Forums.
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.