Friday 14 May 2021

"You'll beat cancer if you stay positive" BRiC's Collective Voice on 'The toxic positivity effect'


‘You’ll beat cancer if you stay positive’. A recent Sunday discussion was on the topic of ‘toxic positivity’ and its impact on our emotional well-being. With just over 200 comments from our members, this discussion hit close to our heart.

Our members have many a time heard the words ‘stay positive’, ‘a positive mindset will breeze you through chemo’, ‘You are so beating cancer’s arse’ ‘If you stay positive, you will get through this’, ‘You caught this early, you’ll be fine’, ‘You’ve SO got this’, ‘If anyone can kick cancer’s arse its you’, ‘You’ve got the better cancer’. However, the reality of how these words make us feel is very far from positive.

What became quickly clear was a sense of how our feelings of fear and sadness due to cancer are minimised by others. We felt we were not allowed to be anxious, sad or fearful. A member said, ‘it shook me to the core’, and another saying ‘it was deeply painful’, when needing to smile whenever her cancer was mentioned. What we almost all agreed on was that the relentless positivity force hindered our ability to process the trauma that we had endured, minimising our emotions to meet the expectation of others, and this we found utterly exhausting and effortful.

Many of us felt that putting on our positivity cloak was a must for others around us as they would not be able to cope. This extended to immediate family, friends, and colleagues. Sometimes, we’ve had to apologise for not ‘coping’, amid not being allowed to grieve the losses we experience due to cancer. There was a sense that we felt less positive whenever we tried to enforce this positivity, and so we’ve ended up being selective in our approach, censoring what we say to whom and pretending everything is fine and allowing ourselves the dishonesty to others when our feelings are not validated. This has meant we’ve lost friends and family members along the way.

The truth is that pretending that we are ok when we are not, is not a helpful line to take. We are not doomed and gloomed, we do have ‘positive’ days and we are hopeful and resilient, we want to survive to the best of our ability, and this is a really delicate point when it comes to secondary breast cancer. But the reality is that our fears can be very real to us. The sadness from the loss to our identity, and the side effects of treatment which linger on for years put us in a vulnerable position and can be limiting. In fact, we are not fighting cancer, but we are fighting the side effects of treatment. We acknowledged that embracing our difficult and upsetting feelings can help us experience a multitude of emotions that can only be beneficial longer term. We’ve learned that suppressing our emotions will backfire, validating them, and addressing them with appropriate tools can lessen the need for the ‘toxic positivity’ which we have found unhelpful.

An interesting point that emerged was a delayed experience of Post Traumatic Stress symptoms when we’ve in fact tried to be jolly and ‘positive’ through treatment. The reality of what has hit us has emerged later after a few years. This evidence shows that the inability to process the trauma that we have endured has led to a delayed onset of PTSD symptoms which isn’t the longer term aim of ‘being positive’.

We can refuse to be jolly and sunny when having sad days. We believe that a positive outlook is helpful of course but not the relentless optimism which can be blinding. We have learned that we can accept our vulnerabilities without resigning to them, and by embracing our emotions we are not denying them the attention they deserve.

We concluded that allowing us to ‘feel’ is to ‘empower’. A balanced approach to our emotional experiences will suit us better longer term. In fact, there is good evidence to show that one of the reasons behind depression is the inability to fulfil positive expectations. We do not want to feel depressed, we want to be able to thrive and grow from our trauma, so counter intuitively or not forcing the positivity cloak on can only increase the discrepancy between where we are and where we are expected to be.

If you are a woman with breast cancer, living in the UK and would like to join our private group, message us here or leave your name in the comments and we will get back to you.