Prosthetic Categories

How Today’s Positivity Culture Hurts People with Chronic Illness

    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.