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.