The growth mindset is veiled toxic positivity

Sophie Reeves

The narrative that a growth mindset is the only valuable and productive perspective is one that is helpful and reassuring for some people, but harmful and forced for others.

A prominent feature of my education has been the concept of the growth mindset: that we can learn and grow over time, constantly expanding our capability to be faced with new and more challenging problems. At the tip of the iceberg, that’s a great concept. But how far should one push themself until it’s just too much?

Personally, I have dealt with mental health issues since middle school. My mental health is no outlier; our generation has higher levels of depression and anxiety than any other before it. Toxic positivity is completely inappropriate. For me and for many others, it is more stigmatizing of emotional difficulties than it will ever be encouraging.

Thinking back to seventh grade at Deal Middle School, I can recall a unit on resilience in my English class. We discussed the characteristic of being able to easily recover from obstacles you encounter in life. The class idealized the ability to come back stronger from every mistake and every failure. 

Our school and our lives can, at times, be veiled in a cloak of toxic positivity. Simple, trendy statements like “good vibes only,” alongside the popularity of the growth mindset in our middle and high school communities may be well-meaning, but it can easily go just a bit too far. There’s a fine line between being compassionate and being condescending. 

Good vibes only: a term that is an internet trend–something you say when everything in your life feels like it is going well. The phrase is often used in a joking manner, but the sentiment itself is not a joke. 

It has become far too normalized to encourage those around us to move on quickly from what challenges us. Which, in turn, normalizes bottling up powerful emotions instead of reconciling with them. Ultimately, this just results in an inability for many of us to process things that are painful, frustrating, or sad, when in truth it’s important to honor the space and time we need to work through them. 

Sometimes, we’re just not ready to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and keep working. We aren’t robots, we’re people.

The growth mindset introduces a very narrow list of ways to respond to obstacles with such a broad range. When you did badly on a test, the answer can simply be to learn from your mistakes and retake it. When we’re faced with failure, or a really awful day, or other significant emotional losses, though, the growth mindset can do far more harm than good. 

Learning from your mistakes is great, but so is allowing yourself time to heal. In the context of the growth mindset, allowing yourself to feel bad for a while would be entirely unproductive. That is just what the growth mindset preaches against: stagnation in the face of difficulty. But human emotions are much more complex than these simplistic rebounds, and toxic positivity doesn’t allow time for recovery, reflection, or validation of how we feel.

When I find myself faced with just too much of this fake positivity, I remind myself: I can take a breather and it’s always okay to take a break. I can trust my own ability to process my emotions and intentionally protect my own peace of mind, whether I am feeling positive or not. •