Tag Archives: compassion

Can Positivity Be Toxic and Hurt Our Health?

 

A new buzzword has circulated the web since 2020: Toxic Positivity…

The pairing of these two terms can make some people feel prickly and others like someone finally gets it. It’s my nature to empathize with opposing views. I often find myself somewhere in the middle, chewing on it all. As a wellness and fitness coach, I see both perspectives and have lived both.

Perhaps the balanced discussion of toxic positivity in this post will help inform you about where positive thinking helps health and when/where it may hurt it. And per usual, I write this with one big caveat – every person is unique and will find themselves at a different place on the “positive vibes” spectrum.

Take my experience, for example…

I was the classic American, privileged, white girl with a stable family and home growing up. I saw the world through rosy-colored lens and stood at a comfortable arms length from any real suffering. In middle school I ran around proclaiming “Life is good!” shortly before it was coined on popular t-shirts in the 90s. I was 100% Miss Positive Vibes. I didn’t have any reason not to be.

 

 

As I grew up and got a little more kicked around by life (you can read about some of those experiences here: Hit by a Car and Pregnancy Loss), I came to better understand the people who met my youthful enthusiasm and can-do attitude with quiet irritation or outward eyerolls. This fresh understanding doesn’t mean that I’m not going to do my best to move forward in life with a hopeful disposition, but it certainly changed how I speak to and empathize with people in the jaws of suffering, grief and loss.

I don’t think our culture is obsessed with people being miserable as some other wellness advocates have suggested. By contrast, I think our culture is addicted to numbing. We find ways to avoid pain or offer quick fixes for it rather than addressing its roots. [Enter: “Toxic positivity,” substance abuse, fear avoidance, spiritual bypassing, grief hierarchies, food addictions, and more.]

A positive disposition is not in and of itself a harmful thing until it prevents us from really sitting with other people in their pain. The very definition of compassion is to suffer together and be motivated to help the suffering person. In other words, compassion compels some people to sit with the person who suffers, acknowledging and hearing their pain, and motivates others to “fix” the suffering. This is where some people in a place of hardship may feel frustrated by futile attempts from loved ones to offer solutions for the painful circumstance. [Hello again, toxic positivity phrases such as “at least you still have…things could be much worse…try to see the bright side…I have a book you should read to help with this,” etc.]

 

 

The complaint against positivity is that it’s not okay when it denies acknowledging hard feelings to the exclusion of positive ones. We are whole beings with ALL the feels at one time or another. This is natural. This is life. This is still within the wellness spectrum; to be fully human.

When we only offer up ideas to solve the pain of another, we miss the other, perhaps more genuine, side of compassion: the “suffer together” side. I would personally rephrase this and call it the “I’m here for you and whatever you need” component of compassion. In times of great need, people must feel free to tell you what they need rather than the other way around. We’re all different and thus, our grief and healing needs will be unique too. We can’t slap boilerplate fixes, numbing tools, and “perk up buttercup” messages to all of humanity.

To sum, positivity becomes “toxic” (i.e., not situationally sensitive) when it:

  • Diminishes the feelings of another
  • Puts another’s grief or hardship into a hierarchy to suggest it’s less difficult than “X”
  • Dismisses or minimizes another’s lived experience
  • Addresses a complicated situation with a cliché phrase or one-size-fits-all perspective
  • Suggests that you’re unwilling to listen due to your own personal discomfort around the subject

Negative emotions can actually inform and grow us emotionally, mentally and spiritually when we work through them. Denying emotions – both negative and positive – can result in distress. As evidenced by one study, suppressing emotional reactions of all kinds can lead to increased heart rate and other physiological symptoms of overwhelm and anxiety. In short, we must authentically confront and work through ALL emotions.

 

 

But if toxic positivity is the harmful denial of negative emotions then doesn’t it stand to reason that “toxic negativity” exists too?

YES.

Negative feelings left unchecked can spiral and wreak havoc on our physical and mental health. That said, it’s entirely natural to oscillate back and forth between positive and negative feelings. So long as we don’t assign labels like “good” and “bad” to the variety of emotions that we humans experience then we’re making at least some small steps of progress.

The wellness industry has been bashed for selling “positive vibes only” for the last decade or two, and heck – even my site’s tagline can be interpreted as toxic positivity. I picked “start believing you can” as the tagline years ago because I saw (and still see) the way that negative self beliefs limit people when it comes to their health and fitness. This does NOT mean positive thoughts will fix all things or that people in a state of suffering can simply adapt an optimistic attitude and “think” themselves better. What it does mean is that faith in ourselves, even in the face of great adversity, is fundamental to persevering the many highs and lows that life doles out.

So, toxic positivity and toxic negativity…meh. They’re just words. Don’t get too hung up on them. Instead, put your energy into embracing authentic living and sincere compassion. These are some of the best tools for wellness.

Start believing you can.

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

 

 

Glimmers of Joy Amid Grief, Loss and Loneliness

I’ve been quiet on the blog and social media for the last month or so – and for good reason. Starting in mid-September, my husband and I started to get some bad news about the prognosis for our third son’s health and pregnancy outcome. We were devastated thinking about a child being born into a life of pain and suffering, and at the same time, we were mortified of losing him prematurely.

My body had been sending me signals that something was very “off” throughout this pregnancy and I feared for the worst. When I found out it was another boy (I have two sons already), my gut instinctively pulled hard: This little one is not okay. I could feel this truth deep down.

Sure, every pregnancy is different. I was told this countless times. “But this feels really different,” I kept repeating to friends and family, at a loss of what else to say.

As a health professional, who is very in tune with her body, I knew this time was wildly different from both of my other pregnancies. I couldn’t take a deep breath, my lungs struggling against some intangible resistance, and I couldn’t read bedtime stories without my heart racing. Every time I climbed the stairs in our home to retrieve a child from naptime or to help with brushing teeth, I would gasp for air.

In all of my adult life, I’ve never been sidelined from exercise. Not after having either of my other sons and not after being hit by a car. At these crossroads, I carefully scaled back my fitness efforts, focused on reducing inflammation, and moved my body through gentle, therapeutic exercises. During this pregnancy though, I could barely do anything. I felt crippled and perpetually exhausted, like life itself was invisibly seeping out from my pores, escaping me.

I told myself it’s all worth it for a healthy baby.

But…what happens when we don’t get our happy ending? What happens when our plans become undone? Or worse yet, what becomes of us when loss and grief strike with the force of a wrecking ball to the jaw?

 

 

That’s where I landed this pregnancy: At the pit of loss. The valley of the shadow of death. The mysterious somewhere between here and there, the intersection of heaven and earth, the place of struggle between shattered dreams and hope. The great purgatory of life where, at our worst moments, we must find the strength to pull ourselves up and out, despite being exhausted to our bones and filled inside with the stuff of nightmares.

I had already experienced loss with a former pregnancy that took place before the conception and birth of my second son. That miscarriage filled me with sadness and dashed hope, but I managed to put myself back together rather quickly, all things considered, and was soon thereafter filled with a complicated mixture of excitement and anxiety when I became pregnant again.

The impending nature of this loss felt different given what we had learned. It felt anticipated, agonized over, feared, and maybe, if I’m being completely honest, like something that might be the safest thing to happen to our child. This impending loss held implications that our child might not have to suffer from complicated surgeries after being born with a slim chance of survival. It would mean that his big brothers would never shed tears and sob into their parents’ arms about something so traumatic that their little-big hearts would strain to understand while simultaneously feeling it deeply. No parent ever wishes to lose a child. When we found out that we had lost our sweet Jake, we broke apart.

 

 

We prayed over our son’s loss with a chaplain at the hospital before surgery. Funeral arrangements were already in place. We felt a sense of peace in the middle of this loss, strange peace, the variety of which only comes from a greater power in the universe. Leading with a spiritual mindset, I prayed and said one last goodbye to my son as my vision went black on the surgery table.

When I woke up, I saw that the clock on the wall was showing a time that was alarmingly late in the day. I expected to wake up nearly four hours earlier than those glaring, sharp red numbers indicated.

What happened? This isn’t right, I recall thinking.

And I assumed correct: Things were definitively not right. 

While still in an anesthesia fog, the surgeon explained to me that I had experienced rare and unexpected medical complications during what is otherwise a routine and short surgery. Although the medical team thought that everything had gone smoothly, I began to bleed excessively. The doctors tried to find the source of bleeding but faced the grim truth that the bleeding was internal and the only way to get it under control was through emergency abdominal surgery. 

My throat felt tight and dry from being intubated as I regained consciousness and blinked at those red clock numbers. I groggily repeated the same questions over and over again to the surgeon, trying to grasp the reality of what had just happened. The doctor kept explaining to me that an artery and one of my fallopian tubes had ruptured and that I now had stitches from my naval to pelvis, both internal and external. As I looked down at my body I noticed large needles secured into veins on both hands from blood transfusions.

Minutes away from a hysterectomy, they said, but thankfully it was averted at last minute. 

Almost a hysterectomy? Potentially life-threatening blood loss? Emergency open surgery? My mind was in a panic. I tried to sit up straight in the recovery room only to be pulled backwards onto the hospital bed with the unbelievable force of a thunderous headache. 

The complications were so much for me to mentally and emotionally process that I briefly forgot about the grief we had been feeling. When it finally resurfaced, I felt like I might not be able to breathe. It felt like my entire life was ending and beginning, all at once.

My recovery nurse at the hospital said, “We’re going to take it one hour at a time, sweetie. Today is your day one.” And somehow, that’s exactly what it felt like. I was no longer the same woman – not emotionally, physically or even spiritually. I had been stripped down and given the chance to rebuild myself from the deepest parts of grief and loss.   

The rebuilding part is all very fresh and new…and painful. But, as an eternal optimist, I know that I will find a way to rise up from this, bearing in mind what I have learned through the years about the intricate web of wellness and how it steers the healing process. Although it’s a long story, and one I’m not ready to share in detail, there was a period of time both right before and after the surgery when I felt so much connection with the universe; with God; with a higher power calling me to lean into faith and trust. 

I can’t say with any measure of confidence that every bad thing that happens in life has profound meaning or a silver lining. I don’t believe that rock solid faith equates to good outcomes for a person. Sometimes, bad things simply happen to good people and there’s no sense or reason to it. Lives can be derailed and sometimes tragically never get back on the tracks.

But when the busy and self-centered nature of our lives fades to the background, and when all the noise is just so…noisy…that suddenly it sounds far off in the distance…in that place of great tragedy, I have felt that there is a hidden presence. A great comforter. Something – or someone – that is there, despite all logic and denial. And it is enough.   

“How is it enough?” You might ask. 

I can’t claim to have the explanation. It’s something that is simply felt; a raw and honest truth that is born from deep within, whispering to us that we are beautiful. We are loved. We are safe.

Contrary to logic, my husband and I have also felt glimmers of joy in the middle of this season of suffering… Not because we wanted to lose a child or felt relieved of all grief because he would never experience pain. Joy doesn’t come from those horrors… 

 

 

True, unbridled, unexpected joy openly presented itself to us through the love and compassion that we received from those who walked through this tragedy with us.

Thanks to loved ones checking on us, we felt glimmers of hope on the other side of exhausting, anxiety-riddled nights spent tossing and turning in our beds, awaiting whatever the future might hold. Friends who sent thoughtful gifts and messages of support from far and near helped us feel a little less lonely and scared while we sat at the doorstep of loss in the midst of an already-very-lonely pandemic. Because of social distancing no one ever stepped into my kitchen to hug me tightly while I cried, but it felt like they did, just the same. The love was so palpable and tender. So near.

Genuine compassion is rare…and we recognized in the middle of our deepest hurt that what we were receiving from others was one of the truest gifts possible in this short life of ours. For this, we are eternally grateful. Not everyone experiencing grief and loss has a solid support system. I know there are many lonely, hurting people out there in the world. To all of these people, and in particular, to women walking through an unexpected season of child loss from any reason – miscarriage, stillbirth, ending a wanted pregnancy, infant loss, or the death of a child at any age, young or old, I hope you know that a hidden presence exists near your suffering. You’re never truly alone.  

 

 

I’m battling fatigue from all this trauma alongside feelings of anxiety and grief every time that I catch a glimpse of the newly-forming scar in the center of my stomach. I know that there is a lot of work to do; physically to recover, mentally to become whole again, and spiritually to persevere and allow my scar to slowly…somehow…become beautiful. Today, my healing incision serves as a reminder of one of the hardest times of my life. It’s easy to resent the sight of it. But, as one who has recovered from trauma before, I know that pain can become beautiful. It’s peculiar how life can happen like that. And I know that wellness of all kinds is necessary for facilitating the metamorphosis. 

So, off I crawl…

Off I fly.

 

“Wounds don’t heal the way you want them to, they heal the way they need to. It takes time for wounds to fade into scars. It takes time for the process of healing to take place. Give yourself that time. Give yourself that grace. Be gentle with your wounds. Be gentle with your heart. You deserve to heal.” -Dele Olanubi

 

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie