Chelsea Jacobs' first introduction to toxic positivity happened while reading a self-help book rooted in women being responsible for their own happiness.
“It started during a time I was severely depressed,” the Florida mom told TODAY Parents. “At the time, that book made me feel better, which sent me down a rabbit hole of consuming 'hustle culture' content, attending conferences based on self-improvement and chasing whatever was recommended to me by the self-help gurus.”
In retrospect, Jacobs said she was just desperate to feel more like herself. Books touting hard work and positive thinking felt like the right solution.
“The book made me feel better, so I thought if I just worked a little harder, was a little more positive, woke up a little earlier, the rest of the things I was struggling with — including diagnosed depression and anxiety — would magically disappear,” she said.
But what could possibly be detrimental about being positive?
Plenty, according to Dr. Shannon Curry, clinical psychologist and director of the Curry Psychology Group in Orange County, California.
What is toxic positivity?
"Social media and reality television have propelled a number of people into the spotlight who are sharing their opinions and advice about life, relationships and mental health. Their messages often resonate because they promise things most of us want — success, wealth, happiness and the ability to manifest out dreams," Curry said. "But toxic positivity, whether from an influencer, an author, a life coach or your mom, is full of blind spots and unrealistic extremes."
Curry said Jacobs' experience is in line with a version of toxic positivity that life coaches and motivational speakers tout.
"You can manifest your dreams if you do x, y and z," Curry explained. "This form of toxic positivity discounts the influence of powerful socioeconomic, cultural, political and identity factors that contribute to each individual’s life experience.
"More insidiously, it denies the oppressive societal forces that make it difficult if not impossible for many people — regardless of how hard they work or what hardships they overcome — to obtain something as simple as health care, let alone a mansion and a maid."
Jacobs recalled the weekend when she finally recognized the dangerous nature of her mindset.
"I was so anxious, I could barely get out of bed," she explained. "Instead of going for a run, I made an appointment with my therapist. I spent the rest of the weekend crying in bed, just trying to ride it out. That Monday, I opened this journal I was using to track my self-growth progress and realized that weekend was considered a massive failure I 'needed to take responsibility for.' Something about that — about suffering from the side effects of anxiety being 'my fault' — just slapped me in the face and woke me up."
Jacobs said this style of thinking made her feel guilty when she felt any emotion other than happiness, or when she chose to rest.
"It was an anxiety-inducing cycle," she explained. "I noticed I would beat myself up for not reaching my insanely lofty goals, which would make me feel worse, which would make me feel like I needed to work harder, which made me more tired, which brought me right back to feeling guilty."
Curry explained that resiliency, not an action plan, and the ability to recognize and reflect on our emotional experience are key components of life satisfaction.
"While the idea of self-reflection sounds a lot less sexy than a celebrity-endorsed 'action-plan for success,' it has the advantage of proven effectiveness," Curry said. "Human beings are designed for emotional and personal growth as a central component to our happiness and well-being, and emotions are the compass in that process."
Toxic positivity and parenting
Jacobs said that as a parent, it's important to allow her son, Jack, grow into himself and all his emotions.
"It breaks my heart to think I may have raised a child who thinks rest is something to feel guilty over, or whose innate reaction to not meeting a goal is to mentally punish themselves," Jacobs said.
Myra Aslam, a mom of three in Sugar Land, Texas, said toxic positivity is a mindset she grew up with and fell into naturally as a parent.
“No matter if things didn’t happen the way I wanted or something went wrong, I was always told to think of my blessings or remember that there was a reason for it happening,” she told TODAY Parents. “That same mentality then continued when I became a parent. If Sofia (Aslam’s oldest daughter) would get upset, I’d immediately try to tame it by explaining the good or looking for the bright side of whatever was happening. Luckily, it’s a habit I caught and started to right with the other two.”
"Toxic positivity is extremely harmful to the well-being of children," Curry said. "It prevents them from building true resiliency in that they are taught that it’s not OK to experience an unpleasant emotion, let alone to have a mental illness that causes difficulties with depression or anxiety. It yields shame, rather than providing effective tools to manage stress, to improve coping and to get real help."
New mom Ashten O'Malley of Ventura, California, recognized the dangers of toxic positivity before giving birth to her son, Jacob.
"Toxic positivity makes new moms feel like they are doing something wrong or aren’t good enough if they feel anything other than the sheer joy of becoming a parent," O'Malley said. "The best gift we can give a new mom is the space to feel whatever motherhood feels like for them — good and bad."
How to avoid toxic positivity
Curry offered five tips for parents seeking to foster healthy emotional relationships with their children:
- Listen until your child is done talking.
- Ask questions to help them identify their emotions.
- Check your own emotions and recognize any resistance, judgment or fear that comes up as your child describes his or her distress or anger.
- You don’t have to agree with your child’s position, but you can always validate your child’s experience. (For instance, you could say, “That sounds like it was really scary, I’m so sorry you felt that way.”)
- Save discipline and a discussion of consequences for a second conversation when you and your child are both calm so that your child will be able to think about and remember the information you share.