What You'll Learn
- What Toxic Positivity Is (and How It Gets Directed at Moms)
- The Outcome of Toxic Positivity
- The Relationship Between Religion and Toxic Positivity
- How to Deal With Toxic Positivity In Our Lives
- How to Avoid Engaging In Toxic Positivity
Enjoy every moment. Be grateful you have a healthy baby. Everything happens for a reason. Moms often get bombarded with these messages, being told they should be happy and positive all the time. But how do you deal with this toxic positivity?
Today, I’m joined by marriage and family therapist Whitney Goodman, author of Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real In a World Obsessed With Being Happy. We’re discussing what toxic positivity is, how to deal with toxic positivity as a mom, and better ways to offer support than emphasizing artificial happiness.
Unhelpful Messages of Positivity
I grew up in a very religious household. In our community, we were expected to be positive and happy. Questioning, doubting, or struggling were considered signs of a lack of faith.
Years later, when I became a mom, I began encountering that same level of emphasis on happiness. As I struggled to find my footing as a mom (coping with undiagnosed postpartum depression at the time), I reached out to people in my life for support.
But the messages I received were far from helpful. I was told that I should just be grateful for having healthy children. I was told that motherhood should be the happiest time of my life. I was told that I should just appreciate my role as a mom.
I was told that motherhood should be the happiest time of my life.
The more that I heard these responses, the more I withdrew. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to struggle in my role, to feel complex feelings, and still love my children and love being a mom.
This is something I coped with for a long time. So when Whitney went viral for a post about toxic positivity, it resonated with me right away.
What I had encountered—what so many of my mom clients encounter—was an invalidation of emotion and a push for happiness, no matter what the circumstances were.
I was thrilled to get the chance to chat with Whitney about toxic positivity as it relates to motherhood, and how to deal with toxic positivity when we encounter it.
What Toxic Positivity Is (and How It Gets Directed at Moms)
Whitney first became fascinated with the idea of toxic positivity when working with chronically ill patients. There was a belief that if they were going to beat their conditions, they had to be positive. But she felt like this was a very tall order for those who were suffering, placing an enormous amount of undue pressure on them to compartmentalize their grief.
She defines toxic positivity as the unrelenting pressure to be happy and positive all the time, and to pursue positivity no matter the circumstances. It often feels like somebody offering a very simple solution for potentially complex problems they know nothing about.
Toxic positivity is often well-intentioned. When people talk to us about a problem, it can feel uncomfortable. We sometimes want to provide a solution rather than sitting with that discomfort.
But these “solutions” invalidate feelings and leave us feeling alone and unseen.
I recently watched an episode of The Kardashians where Khloe was undergoing an embryo transfer. Everybody around her kept saying things like:
“Oh, babies are such a blessing!”
“You should be so excited!”
“God has a plan.”
The entire time, I was cringing, realizing how invalidating that must have been for her.
Behind closed doors, I see this happen to my clients so often. When we’re dealing with significant changes in our lives, like becoming moms, we experience a whole spectrum of emotions—with moments of dread and ambivalence along with times of excitement and joy.
The idea that we should just be happy all the time is unrealistic, and it leaves us feeling shame for having complicated emotions. Motherhood isn’t all a beautiful blessing. Many aspects of it can also be very hard. We should be able to experience a range of human emotions.
The Outcome of Toxic Positivity
The ultimate downside of toxic positivity is that it makes us feel like our feelings are wrong. It creates shame around our emotions. This can cause us to want to hide what we’re going through, leading to isolation.
When we don’t feel like the people in our lives are truly interested in what we’re going through, it makes us feel like we have nobody to turn to.
Whitney also experienced toxic positivity when she was battling postpartum depression. People would ask her, “Isn’t this just the best thing in the world?” This left her feeling ashamed when she was struggling.
There were many moments that I loved, but there were also moments that I despised.
I remember feeling the same way. We are so pressured to enjoy every moment, told that the postpartum period is supposed to be such a beautiful time with our baby. There were many moments that I loved, but there were also moments that I despised—moments where I felt completely overwhelmed.
We’re allowed to have ambivalence about our role. That doesn’t invalidate the love we feel for our children, and it doesn’t make us bad moms.
The Relationship Between Religion and Toxic Positivity
Belonging to a religious community can be very beneficial for many people, offering a sense of belonging. But Whitney pointed out that church and faith communities are essentially the birthplaces of toxic positivity.
These communities value the power of positive thinking and tell people that God wants them to be happy.
There’s nothing wrong with faith—but the problem arises when we put our beliefs on other people who don’t share those same belief systems. This can lead to shame and friction.
Religious communities sometimes tell people that they shouldn’t have mixed feelings—that doubt indicates a lack of faith.
But when we dismiss our emotions, we aren’t able to develop the skills we need to work through them. Faith can be a great thing, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of actual coping skills.
Religion isn’t the only place where people encounter toxic positivity. It also creeps into the wellness and self-development worlds.
These communities emphasize the idea that you must always be growing and doing better—as Whitney said, there’s a billion dollar industry built on the idea that we are just one thought away from being rich or achieving what we want.
The belief that we always need to be doing better is actually what often keeps people feeling very stuck.
In her experience, the belief that we always need to be doing better is actually what often keeps people feeling very stuck. When people are able to accept themselves, they typically end up doing more than when they come from a place of shame—like shaming themselves into losing weight or dieting.
Whitney did point out that it’s okay to want to work on yourself, or even to get botox or dye your hair if it makes you happy. But it comes down to your motivation—are you doing this because it feels good or because you feel unworthy?
This can become particularly complicated when we experience frustrations with our post-baby bodies. We sometimes want to feel like ourselves again, wear the clothes we used to wear, and have control over our own bodies again.
There can be a desire to put ourselves first, and frustration that we don’t have time to do it. But if we work on acceptance of our bodies and our own emotions instead of shame and punishment, we can feel better and allow a more positive space for growth.
How to Deal With Toxic Positivity In Our Lives
We are likely to encounter toxic positivity as moms at some point. So, how do we respond? How do we deal with toxic positivity when it happens to us?
Whitney said the first step is to think about what type of relationship we have with the person. If a stranger at the grocery store says something invalidating or unsolicited, we can just say thanks and move on, rolling our eyes internally.
But if it’s somebody whose opinion and support we value, we might need to address it.
Whitney said that we can say something like, “I know you are trying to help me, but that doesn’t feel helpful,” and then explain what would feel helpful. This can be really hard for many of us. Sometimes this might sound like saying, “I would love it if you could just listen.”
You can use your own wording and tone, but communicate that what they are saying isn’t helpful and that it doesn’t feel good to you.
It’s important to remember that not everybody is significant to us—not everybody’s opinion needs to be equally valued in our lives. We have our inner circle of trusted partners—our spouse, our best friend, and perhaps our closest family members. These are the people we value and trust.
Then, there is another level of extended family members and friends who are trustworthy but not in our inner core circle, followed by another level of acquaintances and co-workers. Beyond that, there is a level of strangers on the internet—who shouldn’t get a say in how we parent.
There is another level of strangers on the internet—who shouldn’t get a say in how we parent.
When we are new parents, and feeling insecure, comments online can feel really loud. For example, if you’re unable to breastfeed, seeing comments that formula isn’t the best choice can feel jarring.
In those moments, Whitney recommends telling yourself that not everybody knows what’s going on in your life—these people don’t know your story, and if they did, they probably wouldn’t say those things. We can also practice reassuring ourselves that we are making the best decision for ourselves and our babies.
This is a strange time in history—for the first time, we are parenting with the opinions of hundreds or thousands of strangers ringing in our ears. This can be overwhelming and contribute to anxiety.
Sometimes we need to place protective measures and boundaries in our lives, such as limiting our exposure to social media, especially during fragile times. It’s also important to define your own values, and trust your own voice and intuition.
It’s also important to identify the core people in your life who you know are not going to respond with judgement or toxic positivity, even if you adhere to different parenting philosophies.
How to Avoid Engaging In Toxic Positivity
When we interact with other moms, it’s also important to avoid falling into patterns of toxic positivity.
Whitney recommends checking in with what the other person is looking for. Some people want to hear advice, but others just want to be heard or validated. We can ask what they are looking for, saying something along the lines of, “Do you need some reassurance that this is going to get better or do you just want me to hear you?”
Then, make sure you are validating the other persons’ emotions. We can say things like, “You’re not wrong—I would probably feel the same way,” instead of “everything happens for a reason,” or “it will all work out.”
Don’t underestimate the value of validation. When I was struggling with PPD, I remember that my husband would always say, “I believe you.” It helped me know that my feelings were valid, and that I had his support.
Sometimes it can be hard to sit in the discomfort or share in someone’s pain. There’s a level of tolerance that we can’t fix problems or make other people feel better. (It’s the same reason we struggle to see our children experience negative emotions and want to alleviate their distress).
There is a level of self-work that we also need to do, building up our tolerance for that discomfort and understanding that there is value in working through emotions.
If you’re struggling with isolation or experiencing invalidation of your emotions, working with a mom therapist can help! Book a free 15 minute consult through our Wellness Center today!