​​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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This is Astonishing: 7 Life Examples Of Toxic Positivity

Human beings seem to have a natural bias toward the negative. We tend to pay more attention to negative aspects and overlook the positive.

Psychologists believe human beings had to pay full attention to life-threatening signs. In the early days of human history, our survival depended on it.

Fast forwarding to today, we seem to display the same tendency. Interestingly, this bias has also shaped scholars’ interests and research direction.

Until recently, we knew very little about what makes life worth living. Psychology spent most of its resources on studying illness rather than wellness.

Thanks to research in the field of Positive Psychology, we now have a clearer picture. Here are some aspects that contribute to greater well-being:

  • positive emotions,
  • feeling engaged,
  • positive relationships,
  • a sense of meaning, and
  • achievement

These are the components of the PERMA model, developed by Martin Seligman. Seligman studied depression for many years. He is also the author of Learned Optimism.

This positive light on what makes us human and happier has been great. It has brought some balance to the study of human existence.

However, a lack of critical thinking has led people to unhealthy positivity. Instead of recognizing the value of negative emotions, people shut them down. They force a positive light onto all experiences.

Such an attitude can be harmful to people’s mental and emotional health.

What is Toxic Positivity?

The internet is packed with motivational quotes:

  • Positive vibes only
  • Every day is a good day to be happy
  • Radiate kindness like confetti

Most of us love quotes like this. We tend to think they are positive and harmless. Aren’t they mean to motivate and inspire us to be and do better?

There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve ourselves. There is, however, a risk associated with this kind of quote. They reinforce toxic positivity.

Toxic Positivity is somewhat an escape. It is an obsession with positive thinking and attitudes. Are you having a bad day? Smile, you are being watched.

When positivity turns into a cult, it becomes a risk for emotional health. Not only for you but everyone around you.

Without realizing it, you are broadcasting the message that it is not ok to be not ok with something. You must perk up. Time is ticking. No room for grumpiness or heartache!

Despite their importance for well-being, forcing positive emotions is unhealthy. It is a way to silence, deny, or ignore negative emotions. These play a role too in our well-being journey.

Negative emotions are helpful signs. They warn us about aspects we should be looking into. Anger can be a natural response to social injustice or even abuse.

Anxiety can be a sign that we don’t have sufficient information to guide our thinking or actions. Sadness can indicate that something or someone is important to us.

Negative emotions and experiences need to be integrated into our well-being journey. They are not pleasant but they are part of human existence. Embracing them is the first step to healing them.

Consequences of Toxic Positivity

What we deny in ourselves, we tend to suppress in others too. When we don’t acknowledge our negative emotions and experiences, we may prevent others from doing the same.

Personal Consequences

At an individual level, we may shut down. Or even reach a level of overwhelm that compromises our mental health. The more we try to shake negative emotions off, the less energy and capacity we will have to keep going.

Complex negative emotions don’t disappear by themselves. Time alone does not heal. We need to sit down and face what our emotions have to tell us.

Dealing with the negative is not pleasant or comfortable, but ignoring or denying it only increases toxicity.

Dismissing the negative and solely holding on to the positive can also put you in situations that lack realism. This is what we also know as blind faith.

Social Consequences

At a social level, toxic positivity reinforces you can’t be negative. You can’t hang around with your negative self. You should not carry that cloud with you.

Although most people have no intention to harm, their ready-made responses can hurt. Suggesting gratitude exercises right away invalidates what the person is feeling. The same goes for positive thinking.  

This band-aid approach to negative emotions makes people feel worse. They add feelings of failure, incompetence, and frustration. They tell people they must endure and hang on.

Such an approach creates distance between people rather than bringing them closer. In the long run, relationships can become shallow and eventually break.

Seven Everyday Life Examples of Toxic Positivity 

Situations requiring empathy and vulnerability are not always easy to deal with. Sometimes we don’t know what to do or say. Without intending it, we may contribute to feelings and experiences of invalidation.

One step we can take is to encourage openness and practice being fully present. We need to internalize that negative emotions are as just as valid as positive ones. The more we hold this idea, the more comfortable we will be with negative emotions.

Another step we can take is to stop the urge to make other people feel better. Sometimes people only need and want to be listened to. We may offer suggestions but we must create a safe space first for that person to share. They need to feel their feelings won’t be brushed off.

To make this point clearer and more concrete let’s look at some real-life examples.

Everything Will Work Out In The End

I’m guilty of saying this a lot, especially to myself. These words may sound innocent and even well-intended. However, they subconsciously give us the message that what we are feeling or thinking right now does not matter. Why waste time processing it?

Positive Vibes Only 

I find this statement one of the most toxic ones we can find. It tells us that if we are not positive or happy, we are not welcome. It creates the pressure of having to be happy and excited all the time, even when we don’t feel like it. Be happy or you’re out.

If I Can Do It, So Can You!

This was by far one of my favourite quotes to use. I thought it was empowering. When I reflected on more recent experiences I immediately saw how toxic this can be. Just because someone lost weight with this or that approach, it doesn’t mean it will work for us the same way. We are all unique and it’s important to honour that.

Look For The Silver Lining 

It’s nice when we can draw lessons or positive consequences from a less pleasant situation. It can take us time to reach that point though. Being suggested to look for the lessons or silver lining can bring frustration and despair. We might not yet have enough clarity about our feelings and experience to do that.

Everything Happens For a Reason 

I’ve repeated this one countless times. When I stop to think about those moments in which I heard this… I know it didn’t help much. Again, we mean no harm, but when we say this to someone we are conveying to their subconscious that they have no reason to be upset. We are invalidating people’s emotional experiences. 

It Could Be Worse 

It can always be worse but that does not help us feel any better at the moment. When we say this to someone who is emotionally upset, we are forcing them to be grateful. Gratitude is a magical and special experience, but it cannot be forced or offered as a band-aid in a hot moment.

It Is What It Is 

This is likely the one I dislike the most. When I hear this, I question myself. Really? Is that all you can tell me? Should I be happy or content? Grateful? This shows little empathy for what a person is feeling. It also plants the idea in your mind that you should be somewhat passive about it. It’s just life, isn’t it? 

Final Thoughts 

When we see people pushing positive thoughts or emotions, it does not mean they are being toxic. Positive thinking, gratitude, and positive reframing are helpful strategies.

These strategies can’t be, however, offered as band-aids. They can’t be a way for us to dismiss or shake off less pleasant emotional experiences. Whether our own or other people’s. 

If we want to be positive role models, we need to be the first ones to embrace both sides of the emotional spectrum. For years, I have been the queen of emotional denial and I no longer want to contribute to that.

Learning about these seven real-life examples has made me rethink the way I exert my empathetic skills. I hope they will nudge you too. 

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