Toxic Positivity

I am a positive person. I am not doom and gloom. Hope is a theme that is front and center in most of my thinking and plans. I believe a positive perspective increases my chances of success in whatever I endeavor. It isn’t that I have to exercise; it’s that I get to exercise. The snow is still the same amount whether I like it or not. I choose to enjoy it and cross country ski when I have the chance. I am not trapped in my home all these months during COVID-19. I am safe.

Living with metastatic cancer makes seeing the bright side harder. I usually am still able to see it. I am grateful I don’t have to work while trying to manage my health. I have a home where I’m more than comfortable. I feel so fortunate to be near top-tier health care. Yet, life isn’t all bright and shiny and lucky me. I still have cancer and cancer sucks. Sucks hard. But I’m still here and that fact is pretty sparkly in my eyes.

I experience the dark. When I’m there, I know that’s where I need to be for a period of time until I’m done with the darkness. IF it’s something I share, and that’s a big if, I need people to acknowledge how crappy the present moment is and that they also feel bad about what’s happening. I do not need to hear Pollyanna BS. Sometimes I need an objective viewpoint, but objectivity isn’t necessarily overly positive.

I have seen comments lately from a few who live at Our Lady of the Perpetually Positive on social media when someone else in the cancer community is in the dark. It isn’t helpful to respond with some never give up mantra when someone is in deep despair about the latest development with cancer when things aren’t going well. A treatment isn’t working. There aren’t options to try. Someone is experiencing physical pain. It is torture to read such news.

People need space held for them in this scary unfolding.

I recently read one such toxic positive comment as a response to another’s bad news. The advice given was to be happy and positive. It’s worth noting the responder is a long time breast cancer survivor and doesn’t have metastatic breast cancer. Does that matter? I’m not sure. There still can be pain and permanent issues as a survivor. I can’t think of a fair comparison. I have a dear friend who is a two-time survivor of breast cancer. I know I can talk to her about things and she listens and responds sensitively. She would never tell me to be happy and positive when something has me devastated.

Perhaps it’s also worth noting this kind of “be happy” response is this person’s go to reply from other comments she’s made. She means well. I have no reason to believe otherwise. Yet, it’s repetitive. It rubs me the wrong way, so much so that I’m writing about it. One of us is missing something in translation. It very possibly could be me.

And yes, I am well aware that I can’t control how another person responds to something. I am used to people not responding the way I think they should in life. I can only control my reaction. There are plenty of opportunities in my life to practice how I react. This is one such opportunity.

So, what is an appropriate way to respond to this perpetual positivity? Perhaps it is simply to mind my own business. Some people have a gift with responses that honor what was said and still offer comfort and that thread of hope. That thread of hope is important to me. A lot of the time I don’t know what I can say that would help someone else feel heard and less alone. Most of the time I think I do okay. I’m more at a loss as to how I’d appropriately respond if I were to receive some of these over the top positive comments.

What is best?

Empathy/Sensitive: Thank you for caring. This advice is truly more upsetting to me than helpful.

Blunt: You so don’t understand. I’m unable to feel the way you are about my impending doom.

Expletive: One or two choice words may communicate feelings effectively.

Short and Sweet: Thank you. It acknowledges the original comment with gratitude and no judgment.

No response: Sometimes ignoring is a fine way to let go and move on. No response is a response. I remind myself I don’t have to share my every thought and reaction, especially if it may be something I could come to regret.

I can only speak for myself, but I would want supportive comments that meet me where I am. I posted a photo of my hand at the end of summer. I set a clear boundary with what I wrote in that I didn’t want pity, advice, or to be reminded I was tough. I wrote I wanted people to know that there were many of us who go around rather quietly but still have a hard time dealing with side effects of our treatments. I wrote more was needed for Stage IV. My friends knew it was uncharacteristic for me to share a hardship. Comments let me know people understood, that I was heard, that cancer sucked, and that I was loved. I didn’t get one single suggestion to go make lemonade with my lemons. Making lemonade would have been fairly hard for me since squeezing lemons would hurt.

There are also cancer magazines that emphasize coping positively with cancer. That’s perfectly fine as there is nothing wrong with positive thinking. However, it became a little less fine one day when I read one such magazine’s submission guidelines that stated they strived “to remain upbeat and positive. Therefore, articles about death and dying are generally not accepted.” I am deliberately not mentioning the name of the publication. I haven’t read many of their articles and want to give them the benefit of my doubts. Death and dying sure isn’t upbeat but it does happen in Cancerland. I have a choice whether I read certain articles and comments or not. Perhaps they aren’t coping too well themselves by forbidding topics that may upset readers.

As I said earlier, I’m not doom and gloom, but it strikes me as highly insensitive to tell someone to be happy when they share they are almost out of options. It is as inappropriate as peals of laughter would be if receiving news like this in person. There is a time for happiness and a time for sadness. There is a time for sunshine and a time for rain. There is a time to ditch toxic positivity and that time is now.

It is okay to not feel happy all the time.

Please leave a reply and let me know your thoughts on dealing with blinding comments from the sunny side.

Author: Kristie Konsoer

I've been living well with metastatic breast cancer since 2012. This blog is a place where I can share thoughts and ideas on cancer, how I feel perceptions of cancer must change, and how I am finding a way to live with strength, hope, meaning, resiliency, humor, and hopefully a little wisdom.

7 thoughts on “Toxic Positivity”

  1. Dear Kristie,
    Sitting in my grief today after the recent death of a friend, I am consoled by your affirmation of my sadness. Nothing more needed to be said., “It’s OK to be sad.”
    Perhaps, dear Kristie, people turn to canned positivism because they can’t comprehend, much less honor, the constancy that cancer is for a person with MBC. If we/they knew we’d be more sensitive? Is there a visual cue for us?
    You take good care of yourself. You don’t require a wheelchair, visiting nurse, or meals on wheels. You even fundraised for Carbone Cancer Center by hosting & participating in a run/walk back in May! You were awesome!
    Your treatment schedule is forever out of mind to the onlooker because you handle a million details in order to live like a person who doesn’t have metastatic breast cancer. You keep appointments and fill prescriptions, exercise, read, write, shop ,cook….
    You’re “trompe l’oeil” to your friends who currently are without cancer. Your “be happy” friends would like to believe you’re OK, and even on the mend. But your friends don’t see that your “on the mend” is daily, a month to month deal.
    You exist because of your endurance. You are OK to be frustrated by people. Your blog posts are our teachers.
    You cultivate and store self-knowledge, faith and optimism to get through each moment, hour, day, week, etc. You occupy hard days with your search for meaning, equilibrium and finding calm, beauty and purpose.
    You make MBC look easy from those of us who stand apart from you. We are doubters, forgetters and self-absorbers. Can you make MBC look harder? Then maybe we folks wouldn’t be so stupid?!?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dearest Margit,
      Did you see yourself in the post? You are the one who meets me where I am every time. Thank you for the compassion you always have for me.
      I exist because I’m lucky. I’d like to take more credit and do think some of my actions have helped, but my oncologists, medicines, and forces beyond my understanding all work together. I do not want to make MBC look harder.
      Thank you for being with me and holding space with me. Thanks for sharing words from your heart and responding.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Spot on. I love your writing and I don’t always have the focus to read your work and I’m so grateful that today is a day I could read your writing. I do believe that our outlook and perspective can impact our experiences. I really do hope it’s sunny tomorrow. And that hope doesn’t change the storm of the day from ripping lightning through my brain. Right now I’m working on acceptance that today’s storm will be active for the foreseeable future and it’s hard when I’m working on that acceptance of the now and people just want to tell me that there will be better drugs in the future. Gosh I hope that’s true, and I’m struggling to get through today so please just agree that today is hard.
    I want to know how you are. It’s ok if you’re not ok.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you were able to read today’s post. I agree that today sounds hard for you and I’m very sorry about that. Hope is important for us today and tomorrow. It doesn’t change that our today may have some hard parts. You are so good at knowing what you need. Self-care in the moment is everything. Keep doing what you need to do. Thank you for asking how I am. Nothing has really changed for me and I am just fine.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Kristie,

    You probably know how I feel about forced positivity in Cancer Land. Advising or telling someone how to feel is just not right. And when someone is struggling, suggesting she should just stay positive is usually pretty darn unhelpful, harmful even. How you respond upon hearing comments that irk you depends on who’s saying them, but I think it’s fine to let someone know when a comment is unhelpful or hurtful. I’ve been told I’m too negative when it comes to how I share my cancer experience (so be it), so reading about that magazine that only accepts positive vibe articles wasn’t surprising, but gosh that irked me. Sharing one’s truths shouldn’t be off limits. Who does sugarcoating help anyway?

    Thanks for writing about a topic that always gets me going. 🙂


    1. I think you shared a link to an article that upset you recently. I read the submission guidelines and unearthed that little gem about not accepting submissions about death. Yes, I do think the source of the toxic positivity depends on how to respond. As does my current mood at the time. I’m usually better off ignoring situations unless I’m directly involved.

      Liked by 1 person

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