a man, upset, surrounded by happy things

The Negative Impact of Positivity Culture

Last updated: November 2022

I once worked for a company where the notion of positivity was prized above all else.

Falling short of your sales target? Stop finding excuses!

Current system not working? Stop focussing on negatives!

Feeling sick or in pain? Put on a brave face and soldier on!

It wasn’t safe to highlight problems. Anyone who did was branded negative and told to shift their perspective.

Forced positivity

Having once viewed myself as an optimist with a fairly sunny disposition, this workplace saw me seriously begin to doubt myself. Was I really such a negative person? The more the positivity push spread, the unhappier most people seemed and the bigger the problems became. It was like putting a fresh coat of paint over a building riddled with termites.

During this time I first developed symptoms of AS. Relentless back pain was interfering with my sleep and I struggled to manage all the driving and interstate travel the job required. Keeping up was getting harder and harder but I knew it wasn’t ok to speak up. I felt so guilty and alone and wished I could just think positive and get on with it like everyone else. Surely this was all in my head?

Eventually I left the job I’d grown to hate. It would take many years before my diagnosis and even more before I stopped invalidating myself for my inability to just get over it.

Toxic positivity

The term toxic positivity struck a real chord with me the first time I heard it. I immediately remembered that workplace, where it had been used in such a disempowering way. Being in that environment had so negatively influenced the way I thought about myself and had made becoming unwell much more difficult to accept.

There’s relief in accepting life as it really is, the good and the bad. There is not always a silver lining. There are days when you can’t find three things to be grateful for.

Call me a cynic, but I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, or that all things work together for good, or there’s always an upside. Sometimes life is just awful and we need to say it how it honestly is and have our voice heard, free from guilt.

I’m a realistic optimist

This gives me permission to see things as they are and still hope for the best outcomes.

These days I can say I’m not coping without seeing myself as a loser. I can acknowledge I’m going through a truly dreadful time without invalidating myself by saying "someone else probably has it worse right now." I can have a bad day, and be grumpy and feel sorry for myself. I can confidently say that getting an autoimmune disease was not my cosmic destiny, it was just bad luck.

Among the many lessons AS has taught me, treating myself fairly is probably the one I’ve come to value the most. Maybe I’ll turn that into an inspirational meme.

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