Why toxic positivity doesn’t work in the chronic illness community

Suppressing my reality and forcing my smiles have made me sicker

Lara Govendo avatar

by Lara Govendo |

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Everything will be fine. You just have to stay positive.”

Ever heard this idea while dealing with a chronic health condition? If so, you’re not alone.

Born with cystic fibrosis (CF), I’ve had a life filled with difficult health challenges. Contrary to popular belief, my symptoms don’t just magically disappear if I think positively. If anything, I’ve been sicker when I don’t allow myself to feel my feelings and be honest about physical symptoms.

When I was preparing for my double-lung transplant six years ago, I experienced unwarranted pressure to think positively. I felt that, if I were honest about how hard it was, I’d somehow change the trajectory of the outcome. Feeling forced to fake a smile and pretend that everything was great — as a way to comfort others in my discomfort — prevented me from vulnerably sharing about my health. It was hurtful to be shut down with a “just stay positive.”

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Stuffing my suffering has never been effective for me. It’s caused resentment, isolation, and deep depression. I’ve felt alone in my worst moments when others refuse to acknowledge the reality of my health circumstances. The inability to be honest about my condition has left me feeling like it’s my fault, that somehow I caused it, and if I could just stay positive, I wouldn’t feel so terrible. It’s taken a while for me to understand what’s actually true.

These instances have been forms of toxic positivity. It’s discredited my experience. I don’t feel comfortable sharing how my health circumstances truly affect me. I’m forced to water down my experience to make it less intense than it really was when others can’t handle the truth of what really happened.

Most of the time it’s because people don’t know what to say. They’re uncertain about how to handle perpetual illness. That’s especially true when people are wired to be fixers or find solutions. They struggle with not being able to fix my situation and are unsettled with not seeing things get better on their timeline.

Other times, I’ve found that people lack empathy, understanding, and grace. Some don’t believe that my experience is real. Since my health issues have been invisible for the most part, it’s hard for people to truly get it because I look fine on the outside.

The difference between positive thinking and toxic positivity

Toxic positivity is when reality is completely negated. It’s blindly speaking positively and ignoring what’s actually happening. But toxic positivity doesn’t miraculously make everything better. In fact, it makes everything worse because it dismisses reality and invalidates people’s individual experience. It gives the illusion that things are perfect when it’s clearly not the case.

I’m all about staying positive and moving toward the best outcomes. But when it leaves no room to be honest about the situation, that’s when it becomes toxic positivity. People react to what’s real — not a fabricated illusion of a picture-perfect reality.

There’s a balance between thinking positively and being rooted in reality, especially for chronic illness. There isn’t a cure for this chronic condition; instead, we balance symptom management. Dismissing people’s personal experience with suffering is detrimental to their well-being and your relationship with them.

Validation for what we’re experiencing is one of the most loving ways to show support for one another. When validating how hard circumstances are, it brings a sigh of relief to the one who’s suffering. The message sent is that “Your struggle is valid. You can be honest here.” It gives permission to be authentic; we don’t have to pretend that we’re OK when we’re not.

It will be OK, but that might not be today. And that’s quite all right, really.

Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.


Michelle avatar


You perfectly articulated what I have been feeling for so many years! Thank you so much for writing this. I will be sharing your wonderful article with those toxic positive, chronically healthy friends of mine who have continually invalidated my feelings and experiences all of these years and made me feel, like you wrote, that it was my fault somehow.

Kathy avatar


So well said! I have so often felt dismissed as a "complainer" even when I was only stating the obvious truth. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and giving some of us validation.

Kay avatar


I have to say, your story is one of the best articles I have ever read that describes living with a chronic disease.

There's a great quote doing the YouTube Shorts round at the moment ... "Sometimes, you think you've been buried but actually, you've been planted."


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