When Positivity Is Toxic
Embracing the quest to create deeper, more authentic relationships.
Posted Jan 26, 2021
“There’s got to be a silver lining.” I find myself repeating these words in my darkest times. It makes sense: the temptation to look for reassuring platitudes in times of struggle is nearly irresistible. That temptation is bigger now more than ever for most people amidst this widespread social unrest and an unceasing pandemic. I had always believed positivity was an advantageous way of looking at the world. Until I reached my breaking point.
I had always been the go-to person. The uber-responsible, level-headed problem solver. The person everyone counted on to shoulder the burdens and take on more—because I believed I was invincible. Then, I became a parent. And I realized I was a far cry from that.
I’m a mother of two, a son and a daughter, each adopted from China. My son’s time in the orphanage left him with developmental difficulties and attachment disorders due to profound neglect.
I wanted to give my all to him, just as I subsequently wanted to give my all to my patients. I began my career as a counselor and chaplain in a hospital after my own life-changing injuries sent me soul-searching and grasping for answers. And it was through all of this that I learned all about the dangers of toxic positivity.
Before my accident, I had been an avid climber. See, what had happened was that as my son pushed me away and continued to present with severe behavioral challenges, I held steadfast to my belief that only I could be the one to save him. The harder I tried, the more he pushed away. Driven by the desire to prove that I could keep it together on my own, I held my angst inside myself like a pressure cooker. I forgot about my own self-care, including climbing safety protocols, which ended up landing me in the hospital after a climbing accident shattered my leg and ultimately resulted in it being amputated below the knee.
My convalescence caused me to question everything about how I had been living, thinking, and relating. I was badly broken, and I needed to heal. Lying in the hospital bed, I was stuck, in pain, and dependent on everyone around me for help. I had never experienced anything like it before, but I see now that it had been necessary. Before my accident, I was at a crossroads between physical self-destruction or emotional collapse. The former ended up being the catalyst that taught me, finally, how to be still.
At first during my recovery, I was at a complete loss. I couldn’t be the optimist and encourager I’d always thought I was. I couldn’t look for silver linings or better days ahead. I was forced to be anchored to the present moment, toggling between feelings of relief and dread, resentment and a continued desire to serve. Challenges persisted. Problems compounded. I learned that sometimes, just getting through the day was an accomplishment.
The emotional tug-of-war between unbridled optimism and crippling despair pulled at me throughout my recovery. With my body shattered, my son continuing to struggle, and our family stuck in survival mode, I persisted in presenting a strong façade, smeared over by a fake smile and false sense of wellbeing I believed the world wanted of me. But I was not okay.
This taught me that while cultivating an optimistic mindset is a powerful coping skill, sometimes it’s not the best medicine. And that’s okay.
I’ve spent so much time in my life embracing this optimistic exterior. I used to hold steadfast to the belief that hope is ever present, and that with a quick shift attitude, all could be well. However, my own intractable pain served as a constant reminder that it’s not that simple. When my badly fractured leg simply would not heal, I learned that sometimes healing has less to do with optimism or the desire for “better days,” and more to do with acceptance. I found that I can’t always wish my maladies away, but I can slow down and allow myself to integrate what they have to teach me.
My current job as a hospital chaplain requires that I sit with people in their hardest moments. Death. Loss. Disability. Pain. Feelings of isolation and loneliness that creep in as visits from friends and family members are restricted during a huge surge in COVID-19 cases here in my state of Wisconsin. Sometimes, there are no words to comfort.
“Toxic positivity stems from the idea that the best or only way to cope with a bad situation is to put a positive spin on it and not dwell on the negative,” said Natalie Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “It results from our tendency to undervalue negative emotional experiences and overvalue positive ones.”[i]
For me, toxic positivity cost me more than my leg. By not being real with the struggles I was experiencing as a parent, I’d lost a degree of my integrity. Losing my interior alignment left me feeling empty and lacking in authentic joy. As I pulled my way through recovery, I grew tired of putting on a brave face to prove my strength. I began to realize that keeping up appearances made relationships feel hollow. I longed for an unforced, authentic joy. I later came to realize that this kind of joy often can arise out of the ashes of despair, and it was here that the seeds of gratitude began to take root.
It occurs to me that the angst so many feel during this pandemic is not unlike my losing my leg, or my children’s early traumas, or the challenges my hospital patients face when confronting illness and uncertainty. Hardships ensue. Pain and disability persist. My choice to be present with all of it unearths a deeper wisdom and inner strength—not because I force myself to smile and choke back the sorrow, but because I choose to sit with it and be still.
When I am open to listening and being present to the difficult stories of my children, and to the gut-wrenching narratives of my patients—without the need to gloss over the hard stuff—a profound shared truth embraces the very moment I inhabit. I learn to let go, to surrender, and gratitude arrives. These moments are sacred.
I imagine that, for some people, this pandemic is the first time they have felt this powerless. It’s hard to embrace loss and grief and hold onto hope at the same time, especially when the way ahead is unpredictable. We all live together in frightening times with an uncertain future, and that’s okay. I know better now. Like my personal crisis of losing my leg, this moment mired in a pandemic has given me an opportunity to be still with myself and those closest to me. To discover new and better ways of relating. To voyage into the frailty of my humanness—the blessed and the broken.
[i] Allyson Chuh. The Washington Post. It’s Time to Ditch Toxic Positivity, Experts Say. ‘It’s Okay Not to Be Okay.’ August 19th, 2020.