Smile – The Dangers of Enforced Positivity

Warning: contains GIFs

It’s the bugbear of the chronically ill and disabled – that oft-repeated refrain, “why can’t you just think positive?” Not only is it disheartening to hear that your genuine challenges are the result of not thinking enough happy thoughts, this kind of enforced positivity can undermine the real, lived experiences of the disabled community, and be used as a tool to silence protest.

An image of cartoon character Spongebob Squarepants. He smiles and holds his hands outstretched. An rainbow emanates from his hands. Caption reads, use your imagination.
Don’t you think that if I could have imagined my way out of this illness, I FUCKING WOULD HAVE ALREADY?

First, I want to say that positivity is not necessarily a bad thing. I know many who use it, along with mindfulness and acceptance, as an effective coping strategy for living with a chronic illness. A few years ago, meditation, mantras and focusing on the positive saw me through some incredibly difficult times. It’s not right for where I am now, but I am certainly not denying the importance and usefulness of positivity in dealing with chronic illness.

What I am writing about today is not so much true positivity but a warped version, where “positive thinking” is mandatory, and anyone who is honest about their symptoms chastised for “negativity”.

An black and white image of four people performing. Bing Crosby, on left, stands on his toes with his back to The Andrews Sisters, who pose with knees bent and arms in the air.
Let’s just say that Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters have a lot to answer for.

Let me give you an example. In her book Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, author Barbara Ehrenreich recalls the oppressive insistence on positive thinking when going through breast cancer. On one breast cancer forum, “positivity” was so strictly enforced that no one was allowed to speak the truth about their lives, and one member was banned after announcing that her prognosis was terminal.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. I know of many chronic illness groups on Facebook which specify “positivity” as a criterion for posting. There is something to be said for keeping the tone of a group supportive and hopeful, but another thing altogether when members feel they cannot openly share their experiences of chronic illness without being censored. I left one particular group after a member was banned for sharing that she was asking her loved ones to see her through the bad days, as she might have good days to follow.

A GIF of Zapp Brannigan from Futurama. His eyes narrow in suspicion.
Because that’s the most offensive thing you’ll ever read in a Facebook group.

What concerns me most about these attitudes is that they come from within the chronic illness community itself. It breaks my heart when those who could be supporting their fellow spoonies in supposed safe spaces instead use those spaces to enforce and promote internalised ableism. For that is what these attitudes are: the insistence that there is something inherently shameful about disability, and the rigorous suppression of a wide range of disabled experiences in order to make able-bodied people more comfortable.

Perhaps those who turn on their own community do so in order to seem less threatening to the outside world. For even though these attitudes have seeped into chronic illness communities, it is certain they originate from a society where disabled people are only framed as inspirations, and chronic illnesses as a battle which can be overcome with the power of positive thinking.

An image of a greeting card. Text reads, please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason. I'm sorry you're going through this.
Courtesy of Emily McDowell.

If someone genuinely believes that chronically ill and disabled people only need look on the bright side to change their lives, they are both fostering a fragile illusion of control over their own life (I don’t think negative thoughts, therefore I don’t have a chronic illness) and providing a neat excuse to shirk any responsibility towards those who do not hold the same privileges in life (sick people just need to think more positively! Why should I help them when they don’t help themselves?).*

An insistence on positivity does not do much to help chronically ill people, and can effectively silence and shame them for having what are very valid and real feelings. It is perfectly normal to feel down and have bad days, and healthy to acknowledge them.

 

An image of a circle with ying-yang division. Text reads, positivity is not a cure for chronic illness - reality and honesty about symptoms is not negativity.
Source

 

Reporting on the supposed powers of positive thinking can also do real damage to those who are in very vulnerable situations. An article about a junk study which suggests cancer patients who “think positive” may live longer might make for a snappy headline, but places unnecessary pressure on those who are already under a great deal of strain. Worse, it insinuates that those who do not recover may personally be at fault.

And as I mentioned above, enforced positivity hurts the disabled community by encouraging us to smile and be happy with our lot, even if there are structural barriers preventing our full participation in society. As Stella Young said, “no amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille.”

 

If positive thinking is a genuine help to you in coping with chronic illness, then I am truly glad for you. There are many spoonies who practise positivity in a way which brings light and joy to the whole chronic illness community. But if you want to be grumpy about your illness or disability, be grumpy. Be angry, malcontent, bitter, ungrateful, accepting, undecided, proud, full of grief, or however you actually feel at any given time. There are as many ways of feeling about chronic illness as there are chronically ill people themselves.

An image from cartoon
This is my particular coping strategy right now.

 

 

*The same attitude can very effectively dismiss those who live in poverty/are unemployed/are on benefits/experience racial discrimination etc.

 

Author: Siobhan S

20 something, living in country Australia. Spoonie profile: ME/CFS, dysautonomia, anxiety. All about sewing, knitting and food. Unapologetic feminist and disability advocate.

16 thoughts on “Smile – The Dangers of Enforced Positivity”

  1. I totaly agree with you, and what you wrote can be applied to anything negative in life.
    Those too much positive people also are the first to let you down when anything “not beautiful” happen in your life. I just hate it!
    Being positive is not thinking that everything is fine, great and beautiful. This is utopia, and it doesn’t help at all. You need to be able to say it when something is wrong, hurts, sucks or anything you might think. What you think is part of you and denying it won’t help. I can’t stand this attitude preventing other to express their feelings.
    Positivity starts with acceptance, and this is the opposite of this kind of positivity. Sometimes life sucks and no amount of positive thought will change it. Being abble to talk about it is a start for acceptance wich is the real origin for a “good” positivity. But this is so much harder to listen to other expressing not so great things than to deny everything.
    You totaly can say whatever you want about your life! This is yours and only you know how you feel about it. And if you hate everybody right now, this is good if this is what you’re thinking now. It happens. And that doesn’t change the inner great person you are.

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    1. All very true, and that’s why I made the clear distinction between true and enforced/false positivity in my post. I think any psychologist would be horrified at the idea of suppressing your feelings to put on a fake happy face every day, and denying what is happening to you. Acceptance is very important for living with chronic illness. It doesn’t mean liking what is happening to us, but we have to accept the world for what it is. Only then can we start practicing true positivity, and coping with chronic illness however we choose.

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  2. RIGHT ON. Thank you for this post, it is such a necessary point (which is a damned shame). I am so sorry that this toxic phenomenon has made its way into chronic illness and spoonie groups; people dealing with such a uniquely challenging set of circumstances and symptoms should be able to vent and speak freely about bad days, feeling isolated, or anything else that makes living with their conditions that much more difficult. How horrible that their peers feel entitled to police other peoples’ responses to their own illness or pain; I can’t imagine how painful it would be to hear such nonsense from people who, at least to some extent, know what you’re going through. 😦

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    1. It’s really bizarre. I avoid a lot of Facebook groups for this reason. Instagram can be more supportive but there are still people within the chronic illness community who will attack you for not doing chronic illness “right”. I guess if you find something that works, you want to scream it from the rooftops, but it can quickly slide into harassing others who haven’t had the same success as you.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for posting this. A dear cousin who died young from breast cancer was inundated with so much of this think positive nonsense. She knew she was dying and it made her feel worse, made it feel like somehow it was her fault that she wasn’t magically cured. It’s true that the brain is a powerful organ for healing, but it’s not a magic wand.

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    1. That is so horrible. One of my close friends recently went through breast cancer and the amount of nasty messages she received, and still continues to receive, astounds me. Perfect strangers feel comfortable approaching her and saying the most terrible things about her cancer. It was quite a shocking revelation that so many people could do such a thing. I am sorry for your loss of your dear cousin.

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  4. Hi Siobhan,
    I agree with all of your points, and I want to add that such censorship of one’s truth is another form of isolation. As if we don’t already feel alienated to some extent. And you are right about the guilting and shaming. I think people who do this do it out of fear of your condition and that it could happen to them (not saying it’s contagious). They want to pretend it can’t be as bad as we ourselves think it is, so yes, they want us to shut up.

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    1. I agree entirely, Diane. If you attribute fault to those who are suffering, it is a lot easier to pretend it couldn’t possibly happen to you. The “just world hypothesis” proposes something much like this – we want to believe in a just world, order and reason so badly, that we blame people when things happen that are out of their control, because it’s too hard to believe that sometimes terrible things just happen without reason or rhyme.

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  5. Here’s the thing. It’s bad enough being trapped in this stupid body that doesn’t work but if I’m also crippled with anger anxiety and depression it’s sheer hell. Because I can’t escape it I can’t walk it off, plant a garden, hang with mates or any of the things I used to do to make the sun shine in my world again. I’m stuck I can’t move and if I don’t find a way to accept and make the most of whatever life I have I’m creating my own hell, no-one else is going to help. That’s why I can’t handle the groups that don’t try to stay positive the ones where people say I just want to die, no-one understands me, the doctor’s think I’m a drug addict etc etc. I can’t keep sticking my metaphorical fingers in my wounds. It hurts enough! I don’t want to give myself anymore pain.

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    1. I understand that, and personally I don’t like those kinds of groups either. But my point is, some people find them helpful and that’s ok. I also believe it is possible to have a positive and supportive group which doesn’t punish members because they’re going through a rough time.

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  6. I love this article and wish you every strength in coping with everything. I have been interested in the cognitive aspects of why positive thinking doesn’t work in a lot of situations, so thanks for describing it so well

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  7. Love this post! (Also, I read Bright Sided and loved it, too. Barbara E is awesome.) I follow your blog because you’re so straightforward about your chronic illness – I know nothing about it, but totally relate to the fact that sometimes things suck and it’s helpful to talk about it. Keep writing and sharing your thoughts. They’re all temporary anyway, there’s no reason to fear ‘good’ ones and ‘bad’ ones. Maybe if people see that, like in blogs like yours, they’ll get it.

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    1. She is a very engaging writer. Thanks for your kind feedback. You are right, all feelings are temporary, and it’s perfectly normal to experience all kinds of feelings.

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