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Stop Trying to Stay Positive All the TimeStop Trying to Stay Positive All the Time

Stop Trying to Stay Positive All the Time

“I try to stay positive, but living with chronic pain is so hard. I don’t know what to do.” My normally stoic friend was in tears when she said this.

“So stop trying to stay positive,” I said.

Though my friend was speechless, the mix of incredulity and relief on her face spoke volumes.

Pretending can be exhuasting

My response may sound flippant or callous, but it is rooted in deep compassion. Not trying to be positive all the time is a radical act of self-care. Once I stopped trying to “stay positive,” living with migraine became so much easier.

No one can stay positive all the time. No one. Living with a chronic condition is hard. It’s exhausting and full of grief and loss. Attempting to stay positive requires pretending like all those other emotions swirling around just don’t exist. But they do. Pretending they aren’t there won’t make the difficult thoughts and emotions go away. In fact, feeling bad about yourself for not being able to banish those thoughts will likely add to your grief. And you’ll expend precious energy trying to suppress them, which never works for long.

Aiming for a balance of emotions

Despite society’s dogmatic insistence on the pursuit of positive emotions, we cycle through positive and negative emotions all day every day. That’s part of being human. The trick is not getting stuck in any one emotional state. We might think (and be told) that we need to “stay positive,” but that’s just as fraught as staying angry all the time. The cult of positivity has somehow turned the idea of not dwelling on the negative into always striving for the positive.

Allowing yourself to feel all the feelings

While it may seem paradoxical, the best way to keep a healthy level of positivity is to experience enough of the painful emotions to find relief from them without being swallowed up by them permanently. Instead of trying to stay positive, throw yourself an occasional pity party. Feel the grief, pain, heartache, rage… feel all the emotions that have a grip on you that day. Cry, punch your pillow, scream until your throat is raw… whatever you need to do to get it out. Then move on. After you get the hurt out, then start looking for the positivity again—you will likely find the positive side feels more genuine than it once did.

Avoid invalidating true emotions

When I first started blogging about migraine, I compulsively put a positive spin on the end of every post. That’s what I was doing in my thoughts, too—every single time I had a thought that felt negative, I made myself come up with a silver lining, even if that silver lining seemed completely absurd. Instead of reducing my despair, this practice was causing my despondency to escalate. Instead of helping myself cope better, I was making things worse invalidating my emotions at every turn.

Practice pays off

Anger, hopelessness, and grief as one’s life is utterly changed by migraine are completely normal and healthy reactions. But I had so internalized the belief that acknowledging these emotions would cause more despair that I attempted to push them down instead. Trying to run from the emotions—which never works long-term—is actually what made the problem worse. Once I learned to face and process my emotions, living with chronic migraine became incalculably easier. Learning to feel these emotions, especially after years of suppressing them, is not easy, of course. And letting the pain out isn’t a one-time thing. You will have to do it over and over. It gets easier with practice (especially with the help of a therapist, which I can’t recommend highly enough) and the reward is so worth the effort.

Breathing a huge sigh of relief

My friend’s struggle with her chronic condition indeed got easier once she stopped trying to stay positive all the time. Although she was initially scared she’d be subsumed by her pain and rage, she wasn’t. With practice, she has become so much more comfortable living with her condition, even though her symptoms haven’t changed. She says it feels like she can finally let her breath out and remember who she is despite her illness.

That’s how I feel, too. It’s an enormous relief.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • jlewit
    7 months ago


    First of all i love this site i was diagnosed with chiari malformation type 1 its not severe enough for surgery

    But i also have migraines and neck pain i liked reading your article myself have a problem with emotions one minute i could be mad the next i could be sad or happy

  • mammapeaches (Susan McManus)
    8 months ago


    I’m so glad your article got posted again. I missed it the first time. You have given me a whole new way to “frame” my condition. It can be so exhausting pretending to be well, as well as trying to stay positive. Thanks for the reminder that it’s okay and that we should feel other emotions!

    I sometimes wish pounding my head on a wall was considered productive!!


  • JAR
    2 years ago

    Thank you for writing this article. I pretend that I’m fine most of the time and it is truly exhausting.

  • Joanna Bodner moderator
    2 years ago

    Sure hear you! 🙁 It can become an all consuming job pretending to be well. So sorry you are forced to do so. Warmly, Joanna ( Team)

  • IntricatePurple
    2 years ago

    I love this site. All the things Ive been going thru I convince myself always to be positive and polite. Even when they can see it in my face. People always comment “i can never tell your miserable because your always such a happy person” until i am not a “happy” person. I usually stay home on days i have no control so no one can see me in my b*tchy state, but I dont have that many sick days either. Wow! I am gonna stop pretending to be Mary Poppins starting today!

  • nelag-g
    2 years ago

    Thanks so much for writing this. I stopped trying to put on a happy face years ago when I realized that I’m not going to get any better and that I will just have good days and bad days. But I have so many friends now with chronic illnesses that they get it and I don’t have to pretend with them. When someone asks me how I’m doing, I no longer say, “Fine.” I answer honestly. I have also been able to teach people a lot about seizures and how they can help someone who is going through a migraine/seizure event. So there are ways that we can educate about our disease/disorder. Wonderful and helpful article for us all.

  • tanyab
    2 years ago

    I used to always smile. It’s what everyone used to say about me. But now I have to force it and I feel like s grump because I’m always in pain or in a fog.

  • arden
    2 years ago

    Well ok, but acknowledging negativity does not have to turn into a celebration of darkness, or even a little party. Its true that our society would coerce us into pasting a smile on our face continually but the down side of negative emotions is that they fed on themselves and lead to more stress (for me at least) and thus increase the migraine symptoms. And if you think its cool to vent these painful eruptions on others, think again. Unless someone is paid to receive, like a therapist. So in mindfulness we just let it all go by like a black cloud and look for the promise of a bluer sky. And don’t forget there is holy peace right in the middle of the worst black, negative storm you are going through.

  • SkiingIsBelieving
    2 years ago

    A great post, very thoughtful and wise. I think that migraine, like life, is best handled by staying in the present–every emotion, whether positive or negative, will pass. We get a lot more wisdom out of working with what’s really happening than pretending something else.

  • FlyDragonfly
    2 years ago

    YES!! As I wake up with post migraine fog and all of the rest of the crap to go with it, this is the validation I needed today. Thank you! I have suffered almost my whole life with pain.

  • lightweaver
    2 years ago

    It would be so great if I had 1 person who got how draing it is to always smile. I think they don’t know what to say.

  • bluebird
    2 years ago

    This is the most important post I have seen about life with chronic disease. Of course, I think it should apply to everyone and we would could encourage responsible ways to communicate with each other that embrace the truth of our human experience. But , indeed, this is not supported by society. Thank you Kerrie. Let’s do a campaign or a poster board at a big meeting for Migraine to educate the doctors as well as consumers. I would be willing to man the booth!

  • aks868
    2 years ago

    Dear Kerrie,
    Thank you so much! What a wise article–and so very pertinent right to for me. I had been doing well emotionally for a while–always staying positive, saying “it is what it is,” and then the last few weeks have been tamping down all these negative emotions about my condition. Finally, I have started to acknowledge them and more important, feel them. I was so afraid I would be swallowed up by them, but it’s actually been such a relief. Thank you again!

  • Selena Marie Wilson
    2 years ago

    YES, YES, YES.
    No wonder I love your writing…we seem to think alike more than not! 😉

    The Altar of Positivity has reached an almost cult status–it’s become not only the emotional status quo to strive for, but is suggested as a legitimate cure for everything from depression to non-terminal chronic diseases.

    This is NOT normal. And more harm than good often comes of it.

  • John1381
    2 years ago

    Thanks Kerrie, a really timely post. It is exhausting trying to be positive despite the battering we all take with migraine. I have found it easier to deal with the emotions as they come; that doesn’t mean giving in to me, it just seems to release some of the pressure.

  • kateymac
    2 years ago

    Kerrie, this is exactly the validation I could use right now. People are going ga-ga about the cgrp drugs. I’m like, “well, we’ll see if I can afford it, if insurance covers it, if it’s really so great, etc..” Some people in my life seem floored that I’m not dancing with joy over it, after 18 yrs of trying all kinds of remedies and only growing sicker with time.
    “You could try to think more optimistically about it,” I’m told. Well, that would take the acting chops of Meryl Streep herself.
    This example is so extreme to me that I may finally be DONE pretending for other people. It’s truly exhausting, and chronic migraine is exhausting enough.
    Thank you so much for writing this!!!!

  • Maureen
    2 years ago

    Totally agree! Feel the feels! The Bible says “Be angry and sin not.” Clearly this means anger can be okay. It’s what we do with it that can get us into trouble. I think that goes for all of the emotions. And I have emotion as a symptom, so sometimes I need to sort out whether what I’m emotionally responding to is my “feeling” or my prodrome.
    Maybe if people heard our self-talk (that inner conversation keeping us occupied during an attack when it is so difficult to communicate with others) instead of our pep-talk, the migraine community would get more validation and empathy.

  • Sarah
    2 years ago

    Emotion as a symptom! Totally get that! I’m either unbelievably high or unbelievably low…and I already struggle with depression and have meds for it, so the question is always “have you taken your happy pills today” and not “are you about to have an attack” like it probably should be when I’m super low…nevermind the fact that my antidepressants have a super long half-life and a missed dose is not gonna cause that much of a change…I’ve learned to just go take care of the migraine needs at that point because I know what’s coming next, if I haven’t caught it myself already.

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