Toxic Positivity Does More Harm Than Good

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
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I’ve had many health issues over the years, including almost dying in an ER from a lack of insulin and an appropriate diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. Then there was my journey with breast cancer when I was thirty-five. The management of these diseases was difficult enough. I was dealing with needles, medical appointments, test results, and constant anxiety.

What made my medical difficulties significantly more challenging was the toxic positivity I was expected to readily receive and manifest in my life. I am very open about my struggles in the hopes of helping others navigate their own situations. However, this came at a cost. When I would express how tired I was, for example, I was met with clapbacks like, “Look on the bright side!” and “You’ve totally got this!” Toxic positivity did nothing but make my life as a sick person more difficult. Your circumstances might be different from mine, but it’s very likely that you have also experienced the effects of those who tell you to just “cheer up” and “stay strong.”

This has, unfortunately, happened to me my entire life. I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember. Adults would dismiss my pain — which manifested as biting my nails, stomachaches, and fear of breaking the rules — by telling me to “take a chill pill” and “stop worrying!” These did nothing but make my anxiety worse. Not only did I have to manage my own racing heart, stomach pains, and fears of the unknown, but now I had the burden of other people’s expectations of me and how I should handle my anxiety. One would piggyback on the other, causing a domino effect.

When I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, I can’t even begin to count the number of times I was told to be thankful I was alive, that one day my disease would be cured, and that if anyone could handle this horrific disease, it was me. Newsflash: none of these made me feel better. All these responses did was dismiss my feelings. I was rightfully confused, angry, exhausted, and terrified. Why was it such a sin to voice my truth? Apparently, my emotions made others uncomfortable, so I was to be “encouraged” with their toxic positivity. Instead, I was discouraged. I was conditioned to believe that my pain was too much for others, and it was best to keep them to myself, just like with my anxiety.

Then breast cancer showed up. Well-meaning people told me I was so strong, to keep fighting, and to stay positive. I know they were trying to cheer me on, but it felt like they were assigning me in a role in a play I didn’t want to be. I was fighting cancer, and the last thing I needed was to be expected to do so with a smile on my face, a song in my heart, and a skip in my step. (On the flipside, the best thing one friend said to me, that we still say to this day, is, “Boobs are stupid.” Hard times can be met with empathetic humor.)

The result of toxic positivity is a culture in which our authenticity is not only not good enough, but a culture in which authenticity is denied. Empathy is avoided in lieu of a blow-off in the form of a manufactured upbeat attitude. We will do anything to avoid being vulnerable to our own emotions and especially those of others. It’s like when someone asks us how we are, and the automated response is, “I’m good. You?” When, in fact, we are absolutely not fine.

Of course, we aren’t going to unveil every nook and cranny of our souls to every person who simply wants to make polite conversation. However, it’s even more difficult to live life under the guise of being “fine.” We need to find our safe people, those who can accept our feelings and empathize with them. This is no easy feat. Part of why so many of us go to therapy is that we know we have at least one person who will validate our feelings and not judge us for having them.

Several years ago, I was attending the funeral of a friend’s husband. As I approached my friend, I tried to think of what to say to her. I feel like the classic, “I’m sorry for your loss” was cliché and empty. I was certainly not going to tell her that her partner was in a better place or something awful like, “God needed another angel in heaven.” (Yes, people actually say this.) I also wasn’t going to tell her it was God’s will for her husband to gone. I wrapped my arms around my friend and blurted out, “This is really shitty.” I don’t know if it was the right thing to say, but it felt that someone needed to acknowledge that her pain was legit.

I don’t know why we feel that we have to make light, sugarcoat, or spin another person’s true feelings. I know from enough therapy that calling out our feelings and dealing with our issues is the way to go. Avoidance doesn’t work in the long-haul. We can’t bury our trauma, because it always, always comes to a head in one form or another.

I’ve also come to realize that those who are comfortable with their own emotions, who confront them head-on, are more likely to accept another person’s feelings when expressed. If we opt to be brave and vulnerable, embracing the inevitable ups and downs that come our way, calling them what they are, then we are a better partner, friend, parent, relative, neighbor, and co-worker. We can join others in their pain — and joy — rather than work so hard to make it fit into a mold we feel we can better handle.

I truly believe that ultimately, we all want to be listened to and supported. We don’t want to be told why our feelings aren’t correct — feelings we have about our own situations. When we hear “Tell me more” or “That sounds really difficult” instead of being advised to be strong and positive, we feel seen. Those who hold space for us are brave. They are willing to set aside their own needs to attend to ours. What a gift this is.

In our hardest moments, we don’t want to look for the rainbows. Trying to skip over our true emotions also means shushing our intuition. This is never a good idea. Yes, feelings can be fleeting, but sometimes they aren’t. We need to sit with our feelings, consider them, and work through them. If there are people in our lives who aren’t supportive of that, it’s time to put up some boundaries. We can’t live our best lives with naysayers distracting us.

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