“Positive vibes only.”
We’re indundated by this message. It’s immediately lobbed at anyone who expresses realistic emotions or struggles in life. This misguided advice often ends up invalidating people’s suffering and pain.
People with disabilities, in particular, are frequently silenced and shamed in the name of positivity (otherwise known as ableism).
Toxic positivity suggests that people with disabilites cause or worsen their own conditions simply based on mindset — not the real life obstacles, disability or illness they’re faced with daily. As if “attitude” is a simple and easy cure for disability or illness.
The fact is, toxic positivity is often weaponized to dismiss disabled people’s voices, concerns and experiences. Edicts like “positive vibes only” centers non-disabled people’s discomfort and misguided opinons (as well as their lack of genuine concern) about disabled people’s very real struggles and valid emotions.
Of course, I should mention here that I believe many people who use toxic positivity are well-intentioned and honestly not aware of how it feels to be on the receiving end of it. Being hopeful, positive and resilient is something to aspire to — it just isn’t always possible 24/7, and certainly not when a person is facing extremely difficult life-changing circustances, like serious illness, grief, trauma, loss and disability.
In this blog, I share examples of toxic positivity, how it is weaponized against people with disabilities, and ways non-disabled people can become better allies.
Statements laced with toxic positivity
When I became disabled after a car accident, and again when diagnosed with autoimmune illnesses, I was frequently met with toxic positivity as an almost knee-jerk reaction whenever I was simply sharing my reality as I tried to manage the permanent impacts of my disability.
These are just a handful of the thoughtless, out of touch and, yes, ableist statements that disabled people like me are subjected to constantly:
- “Just be positive!” / “Positive vibes only”
- “At least…” / “Well it could be worse, you should be thankful…”
- “It’s mind over matter, just frame it positively!”
- “The only disability is a bad attitude.”
- “You need to look on the bright side.”
- “Stay positive, I’m sure there’ll be a cure found soon!”
- “You can think yourself better – your mind is so powerful, you can change any situation. You just have to want to get better.”
- “Have you heard about the Law of Attraction? We attract things to us. You need to figure out how you brought this on and then you can work to get rid of it and start attracting positive things to your life.” (yes, get rid of a permanent disability or illness, just like that!)
- “You can do anything you set your mind to.” (actually, no)
- “Get well soon!” / “Feel better soon” / “Speedy recovery!” (careless wishes when you have an incurable disability, illness or condition)
- “Everybody has the same 24 hours, it’s up to you what you make of it.” (disabled people and those with chronic illnesses do *not* have the same amount of time, ability, opportunities or accomodations to come anywhere close to something resembling equity)
- “You’re alive, so that’s a priviledge, really.” (shaming someone with life-threatening and life-complicating conditions and disabilities)
- “If you want to beat this, the first step is thinking and talking positively.” (is that a fact, now? Tell me, how and when did you become an expert on my disability and lived experience?)
The list goes on and on, unfortunately. Truly positive and conscientious people are mindful of their words and actions. They are self aware and realize it’s harmful to project, blame, dismiss or minimize others’ experiences. If only this was not the exception to the rule.
If you see yourself in some of the above examples, it’s an opportunity to reflect on inappropriate use of positivity to shame, bypass or judge (even if you weren’t aware of it until now). Thank you for your willingness to read on and learn about this perspective from people than can be unintentionally harmed. I believe the majority of people don’t want to be harmful, and as human beings, when we know better, we can do better. (I know I’m constantly learning and unlearning, myself!)
TOXIC POSITIVITY DENIES THE REalities of disability
For the 15% of people around the world who live with disabilities (that’s one billion lives impacted every day), the negative realities of disability include loss of freedom, lack of equality, barriers to public access, education and health care and discrimination in the workplace that derail careers, to name just a few.
Also consider the financial, physical and mental hardship of coping with illness or disability. People with disabilties are more likely to live in poverty, and they’re frequent targets to be physically, sexually and financially abused by caretakers, partners and strangers alike.
It’s little wonder that people with disabilities struggle with depression at very high rates, living in a world like this. Depression arising from unpredictable, chronic illness only amplifies these problems, as well as the exhaustion and complications of dealing with secondary conditions that result from the person’s main disability. (I won’t even get into the high incidence of ableism and medical gaslighting in healthcare!)
every lemon isn’t destined to become lemonade
Sheri Byrne-Haber, a disability inclusion subject matter expert and LinkedIn Top Voice for Social Impact 2022 says it brilliantly: “Toxic positivity largely encompasses the concept of some individuals focusing on positive, feel-good, happy emotions and rejecting anything that may trigger negative emotions. Every lemon MUST be turned into lemonade, no exceptions.”
She continues, “Anecdotally, I know very few people with disabilities who are toxically positive…Many people with disabilities use dark humor and sarcasm as coping mechanisms. Everyone with a disability, regardless of what they are and when they were acquired, have been let down repeatedly by our bodies, by the medical system, by the government, by society.
“Many of us have been let down or even abandoned by family members, schools, and employers. It is hard to stay continuously positive in that context, which is why at least I personally have such a negative reaction when interacting with others who are toxically positive.”
I can very much relate to this sentiment. I’m a positive, resilient person. I’ve worked in public relations for 20 years, so I know something about the concept of “positive spin”.
At the same time, I also live a life that has becoming increasingly impacted by disability. The painful, negative experiences that come with it (and the ableism that accompanies it) coexist with my hopeful, comedic and playful nature. It’s part of who I am.
We are not meant to be positive-performative fakers. At least, I know I don’t want to be and resist any pressure against my authenticity and lived experience, whatever the topic. I think it’s important to be honest about the challenges I face as someone from three underrepresented groups in society, and the way that shapes the experiences I have in the world around me.
Looking back, feeling pressured and shamed to hide and deny my disabilities for well over a decade did me real harm. I fully support people being their whole selves and expressing their whole truths, regardless of their ability or disability — and especially when living with disability.
Please also understand that disabled people have limited patience and energy for educating “ableds” after devoting all our focus and strength to managing our disabilities every hour of every day so that we can preserve our health, our careers and our personal lives.
So, understandably, we don’t want to spend the last of our precious free time and energy fending off toxic positivity or ableism. When we enter into conversations and authentically express ourselves, only to be met with urgent protests from a positivity pusher, we feel dismissed and misunderstood, further pushing us to the outside in this world not built to include us.
If leading a positive, uplifted life is important to you, don’t be that person who jumps to dismissal and blame instead of listening and accepting.
AN OBSESSION WITH POSITIVE SPIN
Medical News Today summarizes it perfectly: “toxic positivity is an obsession with positive thinking. It is the belief that people should put a positive spin on all experiences, even those that are profoundly tragic. Toxic positivity can silence negative emotions, demean grief, and make people feel under pressure to pretend to be happy even when they are struggling.”
Thanks to social media, toxic positivity is a dysfunctional and, now, ubiquitous phenomenon. It seems there is no room or tolerance for expressing or processing legitimate, painful feelings like anger, grief, vulnerability, sadness, fear and loneliness. It’s simply not normal, nor possible, for a human being to be in a constant state of positive bliss.
Emotions, including negative ones, are absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. They’re part of the human experience, and for disabled people, they are deeply sewn into the fabric of our lives as we move forward each day with with conditions, illnesses and disabilities that impact our health, lives, and futures.
Before doling out unsolicited advice to others, especially people with disabilites, ask yourself: am I rushing to bypass or stop real, uncomfortable emotions in myself or in the other person? Why is that? Get curious about your response to default to positivity speak.
EMPATHY AND UNDERSTANDING make a good ally
What disabled people really need is our non-disabled loved ones, friends, colleagues and community members to please:
- stop making their non-disabled world view the focus of the conversation
- not push any well-meaning but uninformed “life coaching” mantras on us
- develop and practice solid active listening skills for thoughtful, respectful responses
- cultivate empathy for others — not just how you imagine you would feel in their position, but really learn about what’s actually happening to disabled people
- resits the urge to make give unsolicited advice, coaching or pep talks to people with disabilties (this incudes comments, questions and debates with disabled people after they’ve shared their lived experience and knowledge)
- never dissuade people from seeking mental health support when they express emotional distress, whether you know them to have a disability or not. Many disabilities are non-apparent, including mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Toxic positivity can contribute to mental health stigma, preventing people who need support from seeking it. Don’t put someone further at risk by spreading the message that they can “think” themselves well. This is dangerous and irresponsible.
- believe people with disabilities when they tell you how they feel, what they experience and how challenging life can be in a world not built for us
- stop pushing your inspirational quotes, especially anything related to inspiration porn
- not deny ableism exists — it’s everywhere from the workplace and health care system to public transport and your local cafe. Instead, take the time to proactively learn about ableism and disability.
- center the voices of people with disabilities, not your own non-disabled voice (even if you have a family member or friend with a disability, non-disabled people must not speak for them and their experiences)
- stop promoting toxic positivity in the business world and realize that your disabled colleagues have never had any advantage and are at risk daily of the very real and detrimental impacts of ableism at work
- understand you are not an expert. Disabled people are the experts on their lives, conditions, struggles and experience.
- change your own incorrect attitudes about disability, and the irresponsible belief that disabled people cause our own difficulties because we don’t embrace an abled person’s idea of positivity.
- accept that no amount of positive vibes or positive thinking can make the world more eqitable, more safe and less discriminating. We simply cannot will ourselves better or fix the world around us by mindset alone. It’s ludicrous and ableist to the core.
- resist the urge to give careless, unauthentic lip service to brush past what a person with a disability is expressing. Instead, pause, and set aside your ego and biases — you’ll likely learn something from this open, mutual conversation. You’ll also be giving the disabled person the dignity and respect every person deserves.
- refrain from touting yourself as a non-disabled “expert” on disability.
- be a safe person for disabled people to interact with, using mindful language and a genuine interest in what they have to say. Being curious instead of convicted is a great start. Psychologist and author Sara Yogev explains, “Someone who is too positive often comes across as naive and not worthy of your trust.” By being open and realistic, accepting that there truly are negative realities and impacts for people with disabilities will show you are not out of touch.
- don’t be afraid to get real. If you want to be taken seriously as a sensible human being, drop the wilful rose coloured glasses act. Life is wonderful but it’s also tough, messy and uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid acknowledge this reality and to show that you are someone others can openly level with.
- don’t compare disabled people, or their struggles. Listen and learn from the very real and individual obstacles, realities and experiences we face. We are not a monolith.
- remember that every day, people with disabilties work to accept our realities, our losses and our struggles. We are managing our conditions (yes, mant of us live with multiple disabilities). Don’t shame us, silence us or get in the way of our progress by pushing toxic positivity, please!
honesty is not negativity
A comprehensive Instagram post by Disability Together provides an excellent summary of how toxic positivity harms disabled people:
“Toxic positivity is frequently weaponized against disabled people in order to insinuate that they cause their own symptoms…Toxic positivity statements can dismantle progress made and make disabled people feel isolated and misunderstood. These statements often come from a place of discomfort, which is why it’s important for allies to enter conversations about disability with the intent to listen and understand.”
I highly recommend tapping the image below to see the excellent and easy to understand post directed at non-disabled people so that they can understand and stop this beahviour, as alllies instead of antagonists.
BE helpful not harmfuL
If you are someone who strongly subscribes to the “positive vibes only” mindset (perhaps before realizing it was problematic), I encourage you to consider the value of empathy over false reassurances that everything will be fine and that it will all work out if you just “stay positive.”
Those popular one-liners peppered in your speech, and stamped on your mug, throw pillow or Instagram feed can and do harm others — and there’s absolutely nothing positive about that. (Can we start saying “Non-ableist vibes only”?)
By not centering your discomfort and opinions, and instead listening to understand the disabled people in your life and community, you will be well on your way to becoming anti-ableist. Now that’s the kind of positivity you should be aiming for!
Have you encountered toxic positivity while living with disability? If so, how do you respond to it? How does it make you feel? Please leave a comment below if you feel comfortable sharing you experience.
Reminder: I am a disabled person and advocate sharing my experiences, knowledge and ideas. I am not a medical professional. My posts may have typos that get missed due to my disability. I’m all about communication and not perfection. Thanks for understanding.
- People with Disabilties have a Complicated Relationship with Positivity
- Another Look at Positivity and Negativity in Disability Culture
- Toxic Positivity Harms the Disabled Community
- Stop Telling Disabled People to Just Think Positive
- Toxic Positivity and Mental Health
- How to Talk About Disabiliity Sensitively and Avoid Ableist Tropes
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