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Fresh Ink: Toxic Positivity, Unwelcome Advice from Others, and My Advice to You

We are proud to share the work of our Cactus Cancer Society community writers here on our blog, including this piece, which is part of a series entitled Fresh Ink.

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“Toxic Positivity, Unwelcome Advice from Others, and My Advice to You,” by Molly Gaynor

I never understood the term toxic positivity until I had cancer. 

I knew some people that I thought were overly positive. People that I would never ask for their recommendation on where to get a good meal bc every meal is the best meal they’ve ever had. 

I always thought that this had more to do with me and my personality. 

Then I got cancer. 

According to Psychology Today, “toxic positivity is the act of avoiding, suppressing, or rejecting negative emotions or experiences.” 

The dictionary definition of toxic positivity is “the practice of promoting or attempting to maintain a positive mindset or attitude regardless of what circumstances and emotions are being experienced.

The term is typically used to discuss the negative mental health effects of being pressured or expected to maintain positivity or happiness at all times, especially when negative emotions are natural and appropriate.”

Life is full of positive and negative emotions.  It’s healthy and natural to have negative emotions sometimes. 

Afterall, the only way out is through, and what you resist persists. 

Cancer sucks, and there’s no getting around that. 

I had long, straight, elbow length hair when I was diagnosed with cancer.  I had long hair for as long as I could remember with one exception.  I cut and donated my hair to help clean up the oil spill back in 2010.  

I hated it.  I cried, and vowed never to cut my hair short again! 

Needless to say I wasn’t happy about being bald. Although my husband did make it easier on me. He walked in on me while I was shaving my head and took over. I’ve never went from laughing to crying and crying to laughing so quickly. (Shoutout to all the caretakers out there) 

I was told “bald is beautiful!” and “it’s just hair.  It’ll grow back.” 

While these things were true I was not in the right headspace to receive these messages well. 

Instead, I silently cursed these statements.  Easy for you to say.  You have a head full of hair.  

This continued throughout my cancer journey.  Strings of unhelpful comments from well-meaning people. 

“You don’t need chemo. You just need your daily devotionals.” 

“I thought people with cancer lost weight.”

“Only one chemo left!”

“You don’t look sick.”

“You get a free boob job!”

“You have your life back now!  You get to go back to normal!”

Just to name a few. 

We always want to fix things.  We want to make people feel better. (And there’s a time and place for that. But it’s not always the answer) We’re uncomfortable with discomfort. 

Now that I understand truly what it’s like to be on the other end of these conversations I don’t do this anymore.  I acknowledge when a situation is crappy.  I tell the other person that a situation sucks, and that I’m sorry that they’re going through it. 

And you know what?  It’s well received.  They appreciate it! 

They don’t like that everyone else has tried to put a positive spin on a shitty situation. 

What if we took the positivity approach to everything?  That would be so inappropriate.

If you worked in customer service and had an irate customer who has already talked to multiple people and have already been on the phone for over an hour and you were immediately positive and upbeat with them without first empathizing with them that probably wouldn’t go over well. 

If you caused a multi-vehicle accident and got out of the car and said to everyone involved that it was their lucky day because they’re still alive and well how would that go? 

Yes, in bad situations it could always be worse, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that negative situations are just that.  Negative.  

We have to express that and move on.  Acknowledging a bad situation doesn’t mean that you’re going to stay stuck there.  Sometimes you just have to get it off your chest!  It’s okay not to be okay. 

I would also like to suggest that you keep your blinders on when you need to.  “Comparison is the thief of joy,” after all. 

Self-care looks different every day.  Some days self-care is exiting the building, hanging up the phone, closing the book, or turning off the TV. 

Cancer is hard enough as it is.  It’s even harder in a culture that is fixated on appearance, health, wealth, and relationships. 

Give yourself grace and kindness.  Give yourself space to do what’s right for you, and recognize that that can change by the day, by the hour, and even by the minute. 

Today, I encourage you to stop toxic positivity. Call someone out if they’re doing it to you. I love what Jamie Kern Lima says in her book Worthy

“Do you need me to just listen,

or would you like me to offer possible solutions?”

“Do you need to talk and connect, or are you just hoping to vent?”

These are such powerful questions and I hope you use them, teach them to others and find them helpful.

Molly Gaynor lives near Charleston, SC with her husband, dog, and two cats. She was diagnosed with triple-positive breast cancer at 32. She’d love to connect on instagram @MindsetMolly, where you’ll find plenty of fur baby photos!