How I Stay Positive With RAby Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate
A negative mind will never give you a positive life is just one of the many motivational maxims that surround us every day. Although I’m a firm believer in the power of positivity, the pressure to be positive at all times can be relentless and exhausting, especially when you live with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or other types of chronic illness. Healthy optimism can cross over into toxic positivity and when it does, it pollutes every effort you make to lead a good life.
At its core, toxic positivity is fake and denies who we really are. It uses positive statements or actions to invalidate and minimize true thoughts and feelings, dismiss difficult situations, and downright shame others for expressing “negative” feelings, such as frustration, anger, or grief. If you’ve ever been told to be grateful for what you have, reminded that others have it worse, or experienced a subtle (or blatant) suggestion that you could be cured if only you’d put a smile on your face, you may have experienced toxic positivity.
Not all positivity is bad, of course. I’ve spent most of my almost five decades with RA being very sad. It wasn’t until I had a very big flare and finally found a medication that worked that I changed my perspective. These days, I do my best to practice positivity — and yes, it truly is something I work hard at every day. When I experience difficult situations and emotions, part of how I cope includes deliberately making a mental and emotional shift in the direction of something positive. And I’m not alone. Many people who live with chronic illness have found a happier life by focusing on optimism and gratitude, and the benefits of this way of life are supported by a lot of research. For instance, a study in the journal Health Psychology showed that practicing gratitude lowered depression in people living with inflammatory bowel disease and arthritis. However, it’s important to know what might happen when we focus on the good to the exclusion of everything else.
Shutting down the part of you that is sad, angry, or scared squashes your natural protective instincts and prevents you from processing those feelings in a healthy way. For instance, coming to an acceptance of RA is a process that often includes facing very real and difficult feelings of grief over the loss of health and working through this is vital before you can move on emotionally. As well, if a situation frightens you or if you’re upset when someone tells you you’re a Debbie Downer for sharing how you feel about your illness, that tickly feeling in your gut is telling you to leave. Forced positivity can block that instinct, leaving you in a situation that’s damaging to your mental health.
Facing, acknowledging, and working through what a Polly Positive—see what I did there?—might call “negative” is such an important part of being authentically positive. For me, the key to coping in a healthy way is to acknowledge and process my feelings before skipping ahead to focus on the lesson. When sidelined by a bad flare or post-medication hangover, I allow myself to feel the frustration and if the tears come, I let them fall, and ask my partner for extra hugs. Depending on the situation, it can take days or weeks to get out the other side, but dealing with my emotions during this allows me to switch to the positive mood once I’m out. I can then focus on the constructive lesson, such as reminding myself not to overdo it in future, or taking a moment to appreciate the fact that forcing myself to rest gave me the opportunity to read a good book.
Finding the line between what’s healthy and what’s toxic means checking in with yourself:
Do you have a habit of swallowing your feelings?
Do you feel guilty when you experience “negative” feelings?
Do you feel pressured to always be in a good mood around a particular person, either in your life or on social media?
Do you feel you can’t speak up about personal or social injustice?
Can you be your true and authentic self?
Full disclosure: I have a long and storied tradition of repressing my feelings to the point of stomach aches and random sobbing during tearjerker commercials. Although I am better at being emotionally honest with myself these days, in tough situations (say, a global pandemic) my instinct is still to soldier through and inevitably, the stomach aches return. Learning how to spot my old dysfunction and situations that make me feel less worthwhile or pressured to perform is a work in progress, one that has been greatly helped by occasional sessions with a therapist. Investing in some counselling can be an excellent start to seeing all your emotions—even the “negative” ones—as valuable and valid.
Journaling is another technique that can help you work out your thoughts and feelings and studies show that it can, for instance, improve the way people cope with chronic pain. All it takes is a notebook, a pen, and some quiet time. To get started, try using one (or all) of the questions I asked above. You can also talk with a trusted friend or family member about how you feel, which might give them the opportunity to share the same kind of experiences.
Although social media is rife with the superficial, it can also be a great place to look for like-minded people discussing ways to push back against toxic positivity and find posts and people fostering an environment of wellness and true positivity. Check out these hashtags:
Lastly—and because I’m a nerd—exploring tips on having difficult conversations in books and online can help you move past the pressure to smile and into something much more real, supportive, and mutually respectful.
Through paying attention to those pressures to be someone other than yourself, it’s possible to learn strategies that can help you acknowledge and love all of you. And you might also gain the courage to exit toxic situations and relationships—a huge bonus. Fumbling toward happiness, RA and all, is a trial-and-error process that can take time, introspection, and work. But once you find that true positive, it’s worth it.
- Relational Narrative in Therapy: Research on Social Work Practice. (2019). "Recipe of Life: A Relational Narrative Approach in Therapy With Persons Living With Chronic Pain." journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1049731519870867
- Benefits of Writing for Chronic Pain: Journal of Clinical Nursing. (2012). "Therapeutic writing and chronic pain: Experiences of therapeutic writing in a cognitive behavioural programme for people with chronic pain." https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1365-2702.2012.04268.x
- Gratitude and Chronic Illness: Health Psychology. (2017). "Gratitude uniquely predicts lower depression in chronic illness populations: A longitudinal study of inflammatory bowel disease and arthritis." psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fhea0000436