“You’ve got this!”
“You are an inspiration!”
“Sending positive vibes your way, girlie!”

These were some of the messages that flooded the comment section of the video I posted the day I was initially diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. They were all well-meaning and delivered with the best intentions of being supportive and caring during a time of extreme trauma, but as my world crumbled around me and the reality of what was happening sank in, those well wishes felt hollow. I felt like life was out of my control and my worst nightmares were coming to fruition. How can anyone be positive about cells mutating in ways designed to kill? Are good vibes and good times the antidotes to fighting cancer I didn’t know about? It felt like I was under immense pressure to find the good in a really scary situation and put up a front of being my ‘best self’. And to top it off, there was an expectation that I would live to survive the tale. But the ‘what ifs’ haunted me at night. What if everything went wrong? What if nothing went to plan? “Everything will work out” didn’t feel like the best messaging… my life was on the line. 

Shortly after my diagnosis, a friend who had been diagnosed with breast cancer years prior reached out to me. “I know you didn’t ask for any of this info, but I thought I’d share anyways,” she wrote. “I wanted to share the term ‘toxic positivity’ because it bugged the sh*t out of me when people said ‘You got this!’ and I couldn’t figure out why until I learned about toxic positivity.” Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how difficult a situation is, people should find and keep a positive mindset. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic emotional experience. Besides, if all of this positivity were the answer to the world’s problems, then why weren’t people happier and healthier? 

In my effort to show up for others and myself better, I began the journey of diving deeper into this movement, and stumbled across Whitney Goodman’s book, Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy, as a recommendation from a friend. 

Goodman’s debut book is a thought-provoking exploration of the cultural phenomenon of toxic positivity and its impact on our mental and emotional wellbeing. Goodman delves into the societal pressure to maintain a facade of constant happiness and optimism, even in the face of adversity and genuine struggles. Through a combination of personal anecdotes, psychological insights, and real-life examples, she exposes the harmful effects of suppressing negative emotions and offers practical guidance on how to embrace a more authentic and balanced approach to emotional wellness. Toxic Positivity challenges readers to question the relentless pursuit of happiness and encourages them to prioritize emotional authenticity, ultimately empowering them to lead healthier and more fulfilling lives. 

So next time you see that ‘good vibes only’ mug or your co-worker reminds you that your cancer “could be worse,” reach for this book and hit them on the side of the head with it. (Just kidding.) Instead, embrace the messy in-between in a world that promotes being your best all the time. Create space for yourself and others that actually promotes validation and empathy. And check out this book at your local library. You won’t regret it.

Madison Rosenbaum works for Mid-Columbia Libraries but isn’t a librarian. She just really likes to listen to audiobooks while she gardens and then recommend her latest reads to anyone who is willing to listen.