Toxic Positivity: Recognizing It and Preserving Your Spoons

When it comes to health crises, only a few diagnoses can be as daunting as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS). But you know what they say, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” – or, in this case, when life gives you chronic pain and mobility issues, make jokes (if you can)! Before we dive into the topic, let me just say that we are in no way trying to trivialize the struggles that people with EDS or other conditions, such as POTS, MCAS, or Chiari, face daily. They are very real medical conditions that can be incredibly challenging to live with, both physically and emotionally. But what we are saying is that, sometimes, a little bit of humor can go a long way in helping us cope with difficult situations. 

Let’s face it, chronic illness, repeat surgeries putting us back together again, and all of it can be a real drag, but focusing on the positive can make all the difference, and neuroscience proves it, according to the University of Pennsylvania. Your mindset is like a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger it gets – so try to embrace the good moments, like when you finally find a pair of shoes that don’t dislocate your ankles!

So, what does it mean to be positive in the face of a health crisis? Well, it doesn’t mean putting on a fake smile and pretending that everything is okay. It’s not about denying the reality of our situation, but rather, it’s about finding the silver lining in the clouds. It’s about taking the hand we’ve been dealt and making the most of it. Now, we’re not saying that it’s easy – far from it. But let me tell you, after years of living with chronic pain and mobility issues, we know a thing or two about the power of positivity. And one of the most important things we’ve learned is that laughter can be good medicine.

What is Toxic Positivity?

Exactly how can positivity turn toxic? Can a positive person potentially poison themselves and others with a relentlessly upbeat outlook? How are you supposed to get over life’s many difficulties like chronic illness or EDS’s whack-a-mole game that’s a never-ending symptom battle if you don’t adopt a positive attitude? One The Mighty contributor captures it in this article on why it’s dangerous to your mental health. 

Toxic positivity is the belief that people should always maintain a positive attitude, even in difficult or negative situations. While positivity can be helpful in some situations, toxic positivity can be harmful because it ignores the reality of the situation and invalidates people’s genuine feelings and experiences, especially things out of our control, such as inherited disorders. It can create pressure to always be happy and optimistic, which can do more harm than good.

Toxic Positivity Can Ruin the Human Experience 

The author Carol Brusegar of Finding a Better Way says in her blog about this relentless positive outlook as “… the dark side of the ‘positive vibes’ trend”. They define toxic positivity as: 

“The excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. Toxic positivity leads to the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.” 

It often happens because the people that care about you want to help with good intentions. They see you experiencing some negative emotions. They heard that you lost your job or are dealing with the death of a loved one – or in a situation where they cannot understand that you are not yet getting better. They want to help. They hate seeing people they care about incapable of getting over the experience or a chronic illness. They will often respond with an overdose of positivity. They feel the best way to get you past this negative life event is to flood you with positive advice and experiences. 

Without Knowing It, They’re Kind of Gaslighting You 

The problem is that this can be so debilitating to the unwitting victim. It encourages ignoring life’s difficulties. Toxic positivity preaches engaging in positive thinking every minute of every day, regardless of what reality is presented to you. If you begin to follow the advice, you could feel ashamed or guilty for having any negative feelings or actually doing the healthy processing of challenging experiences instead of glossing over them. Mental health researcher from Yale June Gruber says people who report extreme happiness often run a greater risk of falling victim to depression, anxiety, and disease. 

Toxic positivity can ruin relationships because the person presenting the “positive at all costs” mindset can be deemed insensitive or dismissive. A person can become ill-prepared for hard times when they fail to accept and deal with harsh reality. The negative effects of toxic positivity are often unintentional. You’re just trying to help. Having a positive mindset can certainly be beneficial, but not when you adopt a fantasy version of what, in reality, is a negative situation that needs to be dealt with properly in a healthy way. But how?

Here are a few tips on how to avoid toxic positivity and preserve your own energy:

  • Validate Feelings: Instead of dismissing negative emotions, validate them. Let people know that it’s okay to feel sad, angry, or frustrated. Show empathy and understanding for their experiences.
  • Offer Support: Instead of trying to fix someone’s problems, offer support and encouragement. Listen to their concerns and offer to help in practical ways.
  • Don’t Compare: Avoid comparing someone’s struggles to someone else’s. Everyone’s experiences are unique and comparing can invalidate someone’s feelings.
  • Acknowledge Reality: Don’t ignore or dismiss the reality of the situation. Instead, acknowledge the difficulties and offer hope for the future.
  • Focus on Self-care: Encourage people to focus on self-care and take care of themselves physically and mentally. This can include exercise, healthy eating, mindfulness practices, and a good sleep routine.
  • Set Small, Achievable Goals: Enjoy being able to open a jar without dislocating your wrist or subluxing your fingers. 
  • Keep a Gratitude Journal: Take a moment each day to appreciate the little things, like stretchy pants.
  • Practice Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Because stress makes everything worse.

Everyday Ideas to Embrace the Bright Side and Foster Healthy Positivity

  • Find joy in small moments, like when your joints decide to stay put for a while or your pain is less than usual.
  • Take advantage of good days, and do something you love, like going for a walk, painting, or binge-watching your favorite show.
  • Pursue hobbies and interests because even if you can’t do everything you used to, there’s still so much you can enjoy
  • Connect with others who share your experiences, whether it’s through support groups or online communities, because nobody understands what you’re going through quite like someone who’s been there themselves.

Remember, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade! And if the lemonade turns out sour, add some vodka and throw a party! In all seriousness, living with chronic illness and navigating the healthcare system can be tough, but maintaining a positive attitude and a good sense of humor can help you conquer even the suckiest of situations. So, keep laughing, keep fighting, and never forget that you are worth it!

To learn more, here are a few websites that offer positive, healthy inspiration:

  • Tiny Buddha – A website featuring articles and stories on personal growth, happiness, and mindfulness.
  • Positive Psychology – A website dedicated to the science of positive psychology, offering research, resources, and practical tips for living a happier life.
  • Positive News – An online newspaper featuring positive news stories from around the world, with a focus on social progress and environmental sustainability.
  • The Mighty – An online community where people with disabilities and chronic illnesses can connect, share stories, and offer support to one another.
  • Greater Good Magazine – An online magazine produced by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, featuring articles and videos on happiness, gratitude, and compassion.
  • MindBodyGreen – A website focused on health and wellness, with a section dedicated to personal growth and positive living.
  • Upworthy – A website featuring positive and inspiring news stories from around the world, with a focus on social justice and environmental issues.
  • TED Talks – A website featuring videos of TED Talks on a variety of topics, including personal growth, mindfulness, and positive psychology.
  • Soul Pancake – A website featuring videos, articles, and quizzes on positive living, with a focus on creativity, gratitude, and self-discovery.

Cover Image: Pixabay

Chronic Pain Partners Media Team

September 2023

1 thought on “Toxic Positivity: Recognizing It and Preserving Your Spoons”

  1. Serena Coils says:

    A good read, it reminds you to NOT live/think like a terrorist, as in we should be living/thinking/doing things in moderation not going to one extreme or another like a terrorist or fanatic of some type would but to get a balance in things like this article says, being positive is good but not go overboard or underestimate not being positive at all, i enjoyed this read,

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