Complaining/Toxic Positivity

“Sorry, I shouldn’t be complaining.”

This is something I’ve said many times, and I’ve also heard it in some iteration or another from many friends. Our culture tells us to be positive — keep smiling, don’t complain, have a good attitude. Philosophies such as manifesting tell us that we get what we put out into the world. In other words, if we’re being negative then it is only natural that negative things are happening to us.

There’s an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) idea that if we don’t put on a positive face that we’re a downer, and that nobody is going to want to be around us if we complain about things.

For those of us with chronic illness or disability, this often means not complaining about the symptoms we are experiencing, keeping quiet when we are in pain, and reminding ourselves that it always could be worse when we start to get down.

There is good research, of course, that positive thinking such as expressing gratitude or being optimistic can be beneficial to our well-being. In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic, studies have shown that these forms of positive thinking can not only help with mental health but also improve sleep and immunity. Personally, practicing gratitude has helped me to accept the limitations of my body and be thankful for the things that it can and does do. There is absolutely a place for positivity in our lives that should not be discounted.

However, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

The Downside of (Toxic) Positivity

The belief that we should be positive, no matter what, is called toxic positivity. Toxic positivity expects someone to always remain optimistic, often glossing over negative things in one’s life. It assumes that being positive is a choice, and assigns moral value to our feelings, labeling things like hope and optimism as “good” feelings and frustration, anger, or sadness as “bad” feelings.

I have fallen prey to toxic positivity a lot in my life, especially after becoming disabled. “No one wants to hear you complain,” I’d tell myself. Instead of being honest about what I was experiencing or feeling, I’d try to act as if everything was okay. My therapist once told me that I was so good at pretending to be okay that even she had a hard time telling there was anything wrong or negative going on in my life. I became a master of disguise, putting on a smile to face the world, even when I had just spent hours in bed crying or in pain.

When we are expected to always be optimistic, we aren’t allowed to be our fully authentic selves. We aren’t real with others or real with ourselves. Instead, we ignore or push down the more negative emotions in pursuit of being positive. However, just as being negative constantly is not healthy, being positive all the time isn’t either.

When we experience (and are allowed to express) the full totality of our emotions and experiences, two things happen. First, we are better able to accept those things, and thus better able to accept ourselves and our lives. Secondly, we allow for connection with others through our sharing of our emotions.

Accepting the Complete Package

Acceptance is an important part of life, especially for those of us living with chronic illnesses or disability. When I was constantly putting on a positive face, I was not being honest with myself or others and struggled to get to a point of acceptance with myself and my disabilities. I couldn’t acknowledge the full range of things I was experiencing — much less accept them.

I was shaken when my therapist said she was not able to tell that something was wrong. I had several similar experiences before I eventually came to the realization that it was crucial for me to begin authentically expressing myself — both to others and to myself — about what I was experiencing.

When I started being more forthcoming about my feelings — including the negative ones — I found that I didn’t become as “stuck” in them. I was able to feel the feelings, and then move through them. The gratitude and optimism that I’d been faking began to come more naturally because I allowed myself to feel all the things, not just the positive things. I got to a point where I began to accept the more difficult parts of my conditions and could celebrate the more positive parts.

Relationships and Complaining

In addition to helping me to accept my life, my body, and my circumstances, being more real with what I was feeling helped my relationships. I started being more honest with people about what I was going through, showing up in an authentic way with those I’m close to in life.

This was helpful for me, as it made my experiences — my pain, sadness, or loneliness, for example — feel validated by having someone else witness them. Trusted friends and family empathized with me when I complained about being in pain or spoke about how I was anxious about a procedure to be done. Hearing back that empathy helped me validate my feelings, which in turn helped me to experience and move through them rather than fighting against them or suppressing them.

In addition, when I expressed some of these less-than-positive things to people, it gave them the opportunity to show up for me in meaningful ways. When I voice that I’m having a high-pain day to my girlfriend, she often will offer to massage pain-relieving oils into my back. Or when I complain to a friend about feeling isolated and lonely, they’ll offer to do a video call with me. Voicing emotions communicates our needs to others and gives them the opportunity to help us meet those needs.

Finding Balance

Just as it isn’t helpful to force ourselves to be positive all the time, we also don’t want to slip into always complaining or being negative. This can have a detrimental impact on our health and relationships. However, by allowing ourselves to both feel our more difficult emotions, while also cultivating an attitude of gratitude for the positive aspects of our lives, we find a balance.

So now, when I start to apologize for complaining, I stop myself. I allow myself to feel my emotions and what is going on, and I try to express them fully. This pain, loneliness, depression…these feelings are as much a part of being human as the gratitude, happiness, and connectedness. By allowing myself to feel and express all of these things, I am more authentically myself. Hopefully, this can help you to navigate your own emotional landscape with honesty and compassion, too. 

Want to Get More Involved with Patient Advocacy?

The 50-State Network is the grassroots advocacy arm of CreakyJoints and the Global Healthy Living Foundation, comprised of patients with chronic illness who are trained as health care activists to proactively connect with local, state, and federal health policy stakeholders to share their perspective and influence change. If you want to effect change and make health care more affordable and accessible to patients with chronic illness, learn more here.

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