​​Empathic Skills 101: How to Avoid Toxic Positivity

Toxic Positivity is the tendency to exclusively focus on the positive. This creates the urge to deny, ignore, or reject the negative. Such an attitude can be damaging though. It reinforces the message in your subconscious mind that it is not ok to feel negative emotions.

These days, we often engage in toxic positivity without realising it or being aware of its impact. Most times, it comes down to not knowing what else to say or do.

The internet, for instance, is packed with quotes that instil toxic positivity. Although superficially harmless, they program our minds to suppress negative emotions and experiences.

Research shows that words, thoughts, and feelings impact human behaviour. Toxic language reduces people’s participation and cooperation.

Some of the negative consequences of toxic positivity include:

  • emotional alienation
  • increased stress and anxiety
  • psychosomatic diseases  

These consequences affect the way we experience ourselves and reality in general. They can also contribute to isolation and poor mental health.

On another hand, empathetic language increases understanding and sharing. Empathy is a huge pillar of healthy and effective communication. It is what differentiates toxic and healthy positivity.

Instead of dismissing negative emotions, healthy positivity embraces the whole emotional spectrum. It creates a safe space for us to share, accept, and validate our feelings.

How can we bring more empathy into our communication though?

Empathic Skills 101

The word empathy was first used in the Arts. The word was meant to describe people’s emotional reactions to artworks. The concept was then developed further in the field of Psychology.

Theodor Lipps defined it as feeling one’s way into the experience of another. This makes it easier to identify empathic skills that nurture healthy positivity.

Being empathetic means we direct our curiosity toward another person. The goal is to understand their experience from within their frame of reference.

To be able to do this, we need to:

  • recognise the emotion in the other person 
  • imagine what the person is feeling
  • seek emotional clarity 
  • validate the other person’s emotion
  • offer adequate support 

Here are three empathetic skills that can help us achieve these outcomes.

Active listening 

People tend to fall into one of two categories. They either listen to reply, or they listen to respond. In which category do you fall the most?

Those who listen to reply back only spend most of their time waiting for their turn to talk. They pay little attention to what is being said. While the other person is talking, they worry or prepare for what to say next.

Those who listen to respond spend their time actively listening. They intend to know what is being said. They are rooted in the present moment. They are confident they will know what to say when the right time comes.

Perspective-taking

From how many angles can you know what is being communicated? Some people can only understand what is being said from their perspective. Empathic understanding means you try to grasp the other person’s point of reference without forcing yours.

It is helpful to imagine what the other person might be feeling or experiencing. This does not mean, however, that you are supposed to guess exactly how another person feels.

Seek clarity and resonance by asking a few questions. You may say something like “I sense you might be feeling upset, is that correct?” or “You sound tired, is that how you are feeling?”. Imagine but don’t assume.

Cultivate safety 

Making people feel comfortable and safe to open up and share their feelings is essential. Being present and considerate is halfway to creating safety.

Another key factor is acceptance. You may not agree with how someone is feeling but you can not deny, reject, or dismiss their experience. Invalidating someone’s emotions is abusive.

As much as we try someone’s shoes, it is virtually impossible to relive their experience. All we can do is offer a safe space, where we can hear, see, and care about them.

Nurturing Empathy Through Mindfulness 

Presence is likely one of the most important psychological qualities. We can cultivate it through mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to remain fully focused on the present moment.

Evidence suggests mindfulness creates room for empathy. When we are fully present, it is easier to listen actively. It also facilitates perspective-taking and feeling another person’s feelings.

With this said, mindfulness can prevent toxic communication patterns. Here are five mindful attitudes to help you avoid toxic positivity.

Acceptance 

Accepting others’ emotional experiences does not mean you agree with them. It does not mean you agree with their interpretation of events. Accepting means you hold the space for the other person to safely share what they are feeling.

You put your perspective aside for a moment so that you can listen and understand theirs. This prevents you from being dismissive. It also helps you to be closer to the other person.

Patience

Toxic positivity is ruthless. It is often a quick band-aid to prevent emotional investment and contagion. However, empathy requires patience and presence.

By being patient toward the other person’s rhythm of communication, you nurture them. You generate and offer them a safe space to share.

Non-judging 

Reacting or forcing another person to change how they feel is counterproductive. We may want to help, but we must fully understand the other person’s perspective and narrative.

When we are quick to judge or make another feel bad for feeling upset, we promote distance and isolation. Non-judgment might be the hardest attitude to embrace but it’s key in empathetic communication.

Trust

Empathetic communication requires a certain dose of vulnerability and courage. There are moments and situations in which we may feel emotionally overwhelmed.

It is important to build on your capacity to be emotionally responsive. You don’t need to know what to say or do beforehand. Trust that when the moment comes you will.

Non-striving

This attitude ties in with trust. By trusting in your empathetic skills, you let go of the need to do or be right all the time. You also let go of the need to control the conversation.

Non-striving means you choose to be aware and fully present in the dialogue. You prevent yourself from engaging in any activity that is manipulative or controlling.

Final Thoughts

Empathy is one of the best gifts we can offer to someone. Being the space holder for another person’s emotions is not always easy though. Sometimes we run out of words or don’t know what to do.

Toxic Positivity has increased in our social circles. Whether people are less empathic or lack emotional maturity is not clear. However, we know that empathy is positively associated with increased pro-social behaviour.

Nurturing empathic skills can benefit us a great deal and our collective evolution. Learning and developing the practice of mindfulness is a possible route.

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