Toxic Positivity Is Not Helpful, It’s Harmful!
"It will get better; just be patient," I remember when my old therapist said this to me. We were discussing my recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. I was weeping and full of uncertainty. I knew she was trying to be positive and say something kind. But, it did not feel significant - I felt worse after that comment. How can patience help my current situation? MS is an illness I will have for the rest of my life. No amount of time will change that.
I heard a lot of "positive" statements during the first few months of diagnosis. I tried to chalk it up as those close to me trying to provide comfort. Now a year later, I know these comments are not helpful. They are hurtful and can minimize the seriousness of my illness. Back then, I did not know what the phrase toxic positivity meant and all the harm it can cause.
What is toxic positivity?
According to Dr. Jamie Long, toxic positivity is "the overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state that results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience."1 I know what you're thinking. What's wrong with being overly optimistic?
How is toxic positivity harmful for those with MS?
A positive outlook is good. But, ignoring the reality of other emotions to remain 'positive' is detrimental. No one is happy or positive 24 hours a day, especially people with chronic illnesses. There are many dynamics to our conditions; symptoms can range from physical, emotional, and mental. That does not translate to constant positivity.
A realistic mindset
I am a glass-half-full person naturally. I try my best to be thankful for how I feel because my MS has been worse. During a severe flare, I lost my mobility. Conversely, I do not hide the bad days. I genuinely share my journey - the good, the bad, and the ugly. Not every day will be a happy day. I find it unrealistic to display a false representation of chronic illness.
Ways to be supportive
Here are a few ways you can support someone you love with chronic illness without being toxically positive.
- Provide validation to their feelings.
- Instead of saying, "you don't look sick," try instead, "I can't imagine what you are experiencing, but I am here to support you!"
- Offer compassion and support.
- Let your actions speak louder than your words. Assist where you can - it makes a difference.
- Conduct some research on their illness.
- A quick Google search can add some insight and widen your understanding. This can make communication easier because you can better understand the condition and symptoms.
- Allow us to be ourselves!
- Our illness does make some changes, but overall we are still the person you remember. Do not let our condition take over your view of us.
Have you ever experienced a "weird" symptom and wondered if others with MS have experienced it too?