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How Today’s Positivity Culture Hurts People with Chronic Illness

Posted by Bryan Potok, CPO on

Our culture is saturated with messages to "stay positive." While self-help book authors that advocate optimism have good intentions for spreading the word, happiness and all other light emotions have been positioned as "good emotions." This has led many to shun the dark emotions.

 An amputee covers her ears to protect herself from the detrimental effects of today's positivity culture.

There's nothing wrong with being positive; however, we ought to think twice before doling out the bumper sticker advice to people experiencing chronic illness.  

They grapple with rejection

As chronic illness is often invisible, most people don't understand how intense the pain and discomfort can be. So talking about it is often perceived as complaining—a negative action which, according to popular culture, can be cured with positivity.

Living in a culture that believes optimism can cure everything is difficult for people with chronic illness. They are often rejected because they are "no fun to talk to," even when they are merely talking about their experiences.

In this case, sharing is perceived as complaining. According to a study by Werner, A., Isaksen, LW., and Malterud, K., study subjects who had chronic illness had a deep fear of being seen as a complainer or a whiner if they talked about their condition.

They feel shame (when they shouldn't)

Because optimism is weaponized, and talking about pain and discomfort can often be seen as complaining, many people with chronic illness feel shame. And internalized shame leads to prolonged stress, which adversely affects physical health. 

This leads to a destructive cycle that will make it harder for those with chronic illness to live with their condition.

Aim for authenticity and offer support

While we cannot deny the positive impact of optimism culture in other people's lives, it's just as important to acknowledge that as human beings, we are supposed to feel the full range of emotions. In some cases, allowing one's self to explore "darker emotions"—such as anger, fear, sadness, and grief—can be therapeutic.

If you have loved ones with chronic illness, it's best to offer your support and listen to them when they need it. More often than not, they simply need someone who is willing to listen. They are not asking for your advice.

If you have a chronic illness and you struggle with living in a society that elevates positivity above everything, know that there are people out there who are willing to support you. They could be members of your family or a close circle of friends. Reach out to them when you need to talk. And whenever you feel ashamed of your condition, talk it out with your support group. Shame weakens when it is spoken. 

What do you think about this topic? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.
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  • As a BK amputee this article has helped me. I printed it out and will keep it where I can read it from time to time. I often experience self-consciousness and embarrassment. I will re-read the article frequently for relief from those emotions. Thank you so much for giving me that relief! Cynthia

    Cynthia Cartaya on

  • Great article! Life, with or without limbs or illness, is holistic. I have read a few books on positive psychology (Authentic Happiness, Flourish). It is a nice idea, but I knew something was missing from the approach.

    Harlan Kellem on

  • I agree completly. However I would take it a step further. It includes statements like, if you arent willing to tell me how you lost your leg, arm etc then you arent well adjusted. Or questions like are you a veteran, which is code for how did you lose your arm, leg etc. Or it cant hurt it’s no longer there or it could be worse look at the bright side

    steven weller on

  • Hi Friend: Terrific to have your kind of supportive information. I have asked our peer Visitor Coordinator to email it to her list of certified Peer Visitors. You may want to submit it to the Amputee Coalition. NO ONE sends amputees any good information except you and the folks at In Motion and Amplitude, although those areticles are mostly social in nature. Please keep up the good work in providing information about supplies and articles. Send me any flyers, etc., about supplies and I will forward it to my email list, Phil Tamoush, P:resident, MAAF

    Phil Tamoush on

  • BK amputee. When 60. Now approaching 70. Trauma. Took to it like a duck to water. Had the: there is Fantasy and there is Reality chat with myself. Unchartered waters no doubt. Did what my Prosthetist instructed me to do. I’ve done amazingly well – from my perspective. I’ve had a couple hiccups along the way but I just get through them.

    One aspect of this Amputee Community that gets me all fired up is: you know it’s okay to be ordinary. I like to tell people that I am just happy to be ‘extraordinarily ordinary’. Have no desire to climb mountains or run a marathon or compete at any level. I am busy every day doing life stuff, manual labor and driving a semi- truck, taking care of my home my critters-me ; In other words – Life Stuff.

    All the focus seems to be on achievements and doing all those things that “in the world’s eyes say look at me go”. You are “less” by just being ordinary. That’s me just ordinary – exceptionally ordinary. :) I applaud all the movers and shakers and high jumpers – but let’s hear a cheer for the amputee mowing that lawn. :)

    Gay Preator on

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