In 2020, a movement called positive toxicity paraded across my social media feed, a sort of a counter culture narrative to those of us sharing positive messaging online. It didn’t surprise me given social media’s courting of anti-everything platforms, but what took me by surprise was that the anti-positivity movement began to resonate with me, a positivity blogger.
If you haven’t heard of positivity toxicity and I hadn’t until last year, the good folks at Merriam-Webster.com define positive toxicity as “containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation.”
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think the word positive would be equated with toxicity, let alone with death or serious debilitation, nor would I have ever imagined myself nodding my head in agreement with anyone who claimed such a thing. But I spent most of 2021 coming to the realization that since my initial breast cancer diagnosis in 2016, I had been so focused on the positive physical aspects of my recovery and sharing those blessings, that I had not allowed myself the grace to examine my negative feelings about the entire experience.
I had forgotten an important reality that it takes both positive and negative energy to power a battery. The human battery is no different. One without the other leaves us feeling out of balance, adrift, disconnected and in my case, it took me to a place in my head I didn’t understand. This place was sometimes dark, unhappy and yes, it did scare me to death.
I have a wonderful husband and three amazing adult children, extended family and friends and an incredible church family who have always been loving and incredibly supportive of me throughout my journey; and I have been blessed the past several years to have the opportunity to work from home, to write and expand my creative side, leaving me pretty much shielded from any job-related COVID pandemic concerns that might have impacted my health.
Yet, 2021 came around and talking about positivity began to ring hollow and the more I tried to write about its benefits, the more it felt like a stranger to me. It was a scary time and I remember thinking last February, “What in the world happened to PositivelyAnne?” when I just couldn’t bring myself to post what I had written. If I didn’t know, then how could I expect my readers to know?
I found my answer when I began to explore a bit more about positive toxicity.
Tabitha Kirkland, a psychologist and associate teaching professor at University of Washington School of Medicine says: “Toxic positivity involves dismissing negative emotions and responding to distress with false reassurances rather than empathy.” (https://rightasrain.uwmedicineorg).
Self-described radical psychotherapist, Whitney Goodman (@sitwithwit), whose best seller, Toxic Positivity, markets itself as a powerful guide to owning our emotions-even difficult ones-in order to show up authentically in the world, says that being bombarded by “good vibes only” and “life is good” memes is actually silencing negativity.
Now full disclosure, I am not a psychologist, a physician or a therapist and can’t evaluate any of the work of these two individuals on a scientific level, but it’s important to me to give credit where credit is due as both Dr. Kirkland and Ms. Goodman’s writings about positive toxicity really caused me to pause and examine the role of positivity in my life.
From the outset of 2021, I thought I had all the positivity tools I needed in life; family, friends, a beautiful home, a loving relationship with God and best of all, I had survived nineteen health setbacks and came out swinging every time, ready to get back in the game of life. I was THE POSITIVITY CHAMPION!
But I couldn’t ignore the fact that what Tabitha Kirkland and Whitney Goodman said was partially ringing true for me after almost six years of ignoring my own negative elephant in the room. Positivity was now a vibe I was searching for, not an experience I was living. The more I dismissed my negative feelings out of some crazy notion that to acknowledge them would be akin to giving up on positivity, the more I became like a positivity meme, a feel-good reality star of my own making praying I could live up to the smiling image I had created for myself. It all felt fake and wrong on so many levels.
The interesting thing is that at the end of the day, I figured out that I was the only one stopping myself from addressing the negative things about my trauma, and that is where I disagree with Kirkland and Goodman about the root cause of positive toxicity. If you read more of their work they talk a lot about positive toxicity as something that comes at you via the actions of other people. People whose intentions, good or otherwise, seemingly discredit and devalue the negatives in one’s situation, thereby creating a positive environment that seemingly lacks empathy. That may be true on some level, but, in my experience, most people attempt to comfort others not for selfish reasons or a desire to erase/erode our traumatic experiences, but out of sense of compassion and love for us.
I just can’t critique anyone for attempting to comfort me the past six years, even if it is true that sometimes I wasn’t in the mood for it. God bless them for trying to take away my pain, more often than not they succeeded!
But maybe that’s because I see life through the lens of God’s grace which I believe should be afforded to those who “try”. I know if I had been open and honest with my own negative emotions since my ordeal first began, an innocuous comment from a dear friend like, “Anne, you look fabulous, no one would ever know all you’ve been through!” would never have felt like nails on the chalkboard of my psyche, and instead felt like the kindness of a person who only wanted the best for me. I wish I had come to this realization sooner…oh the joy I missed out on.
Empathy can’t only be an expectation of others, we must expect it of ourselves and practice self-empathy regularly by dealing with our own negative feelings with complete honesty and candor.
The honest truth is that I didn’t feel fabulous inside and it was my own fault for ignoring that part of me. It was a self-inflicted wound and I didn’t know how to tell anyone about it or how to stop it because I had let it go on for so long. I was so grateful to God for sparing my life so many times and so ashamed that I didn’t know what to do with this new self. I was a master at bouncing back from surgery, the picture of vitality and health, but internally I was angry, so very angry, that breast cancer had robbed me of the life I was living pre-cancer and I felt so incredibly guilty for feeling angry at all.
I didn’t understand this new me I saw in the mirror, the woman whose upper torso was disfigured, who was missing multiple internal organs, the woman who had been sliced and diced in the surgery room year after year and then suddenly it was over and I was just expected to get back to life.
With every passing day I found myself more bewildered by it all and unworthy of such a wonderful gift as a second, third, fourth, fifth…chance at life. Why me Lord, when I don’t know what to do with it?
So, I took 2021 to explore all of this, positive toxicity, the negativity, the dark feelings. Oh, not every day. Not every moment, but for the first time in forever, I allowed myself entire days to acknowledge the rough patches I’d been through. I discovered that by allowing the negativity of my trauma to wash over me and through me, I began to understand it and me.
I’ll be honest with you, there were scary days, still are, and I do understand why people do not want to make time to explore their darker side. For there are times where I feel like I am being pulled into the abyss of my own sense of unworthiness. I truly have to thank my husband and adult children and some terrific friends and health care providers for getting me through this difficult time. They have been there unconditionally to offer comfort and a kind word when I need it and more importantly to get tough with me when I needed to hear some tough things. It’s nice to know others understand how to clean my dirty windshield when I am blinded by my own vanity. HA HA!
But the bottom line is that this is a process and what I am realizing is that the more I allow myself the time to acknowledge and grieve my trauma, to lean into exploring the negative feelings, instead of glossing over them, the more centered I feel. In balance. The more positivity and all the blessings in my life make sense.
I can’t stress this enough, whatever trauma you are going through, don’t gloss over it, give yourself the time and gift of acknowledging the bad stuff. It isn’t an instant fix, but…
Grief is an important tool in finding your way back to the light. Your inner light.
So, I’ve decided to reboot the blog as positivelyannesworld.com and spend 2022 year exploring this idea of light and dark in the human experience and how to find balance.
Won’t you join me? Please like, subscribe and share with anyone you feel would benefit.