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