Toxic Positivity – Why is it so dangerous?

I’ve been meaning to write this blog post for a while but never quite had the words. Hopefully the words below make sense! I’m posting this in December but it’s got nothing to do with Christmas. Although, saying that, the sentiments could definitely be applied to the festive season. 

Related: Mummying and M.E. – Surviving my first Christmas With ME CFS

Prior to becoming ill, I had honestly never heard of the phrase “toxic positivity”. I certainly didn’t know what it meant and the damage it causes those with chronic illnesses. 

What is toxic positivity? 

Put simply, “toxic positivity” is pushing for a mental state where only positive emotions are experienced or shown. It denies the existence of any emotion that would be perceived as “negative”. 

Toxic positivity represents the society in which we are told “be positive”, “turn that frown upside down”, or “chin up”; quotes that are effectively saying suck it up and get over it. 

What good does that do us all? Why should we have to hide emotions, or somehow deny an emotion that is not socially acceptable? 

How does toxic positivity affect us? 

Ask any person with a chronic illness if they’ve ever been told their illness will disappear with the right mindset and you can guarantee they’ll be ready and willing to share their story. The annoyance of the toxic positivity movement is regularly seen across social media. 

Each and every one of us experience a full range of emotions and feelings from day to day. Anger. Joy. Frustration. Contentment. Emotions are normal. Feeling those emotions is normal. Trying to pretend these emotions don’t exist is not normal. 

Add those emotions to life with chronic illness, with its unpredictability, the not knowing from one day to the next how your body will behave, and you’ve got quite the emotion-rollercoaster. 

Related: Mummying and M.E. – What an M.E. Crash Feels Like

What one is doing by denying a negative emotion is effectively saying that that emotion doesn’t exist. It is saying that somehow by thinking positively, all those negative emotions will magically disappear, along with whatever chronic illnesses we have. 

I like to equate the suppressing of negative emotions to a box. Each time one is denying an emotion exists, or somehow refusing to accept it, that emotion goes into a box. Slowly but surely that box is getting filled. With nowhere for these emotions to go, they are agitated, enhanced. Eventually, that box is going to explode. And that isn’t a pretty sight. 

My toxic positivity journey 

Early in my ME CFS journey I was regularly told “but at least you have…” or “just focus on the positives”. This would generally happen mid-conversation, a conversation in which I was trying to process what was happening in my life. Maybe the listener was just trying to shut me up, I’m not sure. Highly likely that’s the case now I think about it. 

Related: Mummying and M.E. – My M.E. Story

These phrases used to drive me completely crazy. Why exactly can’t one be upset, angry or just plain sad about something? Especially something so life-changing like a chronic illness diagnosis? I was having to come to terms with something I may live with for many years. As it turns out I’m now using a wheelchair and that’s been a really wonderful thing, honestly, but it’s the changes to mine (and therefore hubby and little E’s) life that take some adjusting to. 

I’m obviously not suggesting it’s ok to be forever miserable but to deny the feelings of sadness, anger, annoyance, is truly dangerous. 

Related: Mummying and M.E. – Reflections on the last year

I’m someone who does not do well with bottling up emotions. My long-term therapist of many years, in our early days, used to tell me that my depression could be attributed to deep-seated anger. Ironically, I used to get more and more angry at her each time she told me this. “She doesn’t understand me! I’m not angry!” I would internally shout. Totally ironic. She was completely right. 

Eventually I came to realise she was totally spot on. Refusing to process said anger was leading to a depressive episode every single time. I was bottling up emotions and then they were exploding out like a box too full. 

Is it a British thing? Are other countries the same in this apparent need to only show “positive” emotions? I’m not sure and would love to know the answer. 

Mental Health in the UK

We know full well that the mental health agenda has sky-rocketed in the UK in the last few years and rightly so. Suddenly great swathes of people are coming forward to share their story. Perhaps a story that has been hidden beneath a forced smile for many years. 

And I can guarantee that for each and every one of these people, they will have been told “just focus on the positives” by at least one person. 

At the end of the day, are we not all allowed to experience the full range of human emotion? Are we not allowed to scream, shout, jump in both anger and joy? Who are we if we can’t express emotion that is fundamentally natural to each and every one of us? 

So what do we do about it? Validation. Validate that the emotion exists, that that’s how you’re feeling, and then process it. The processing part will allow you to then move on, and continue with your day, but if the emotion is not validated, then it will continue to fester. It will grow and eventually explode. And you don’t want that happening! 

What are your thoughts on toxic positivity? Does any of what I’ve said resonate with you? Comment below and share this post across social media. 

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