When positivity turns toxic


TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING In a desperate attempt to show empathy and make others feel better, we can minimise their experience

Life Advice
Sadhbh Dunne

Ever felt some guilt for feeling upset about a situation? When sharing a struggle with a confidant, have you ever been reliably informed that ‘everything will work out in the end’?
This type of encouragement to avoid or suppress negative emotions and experiences is termed ‘toxic positivity’. Its subtlety makes it sometimes difficult to recognise, and whilst not an official psychological term, it is a hot topic.
Most of us have fallen victim to suppressing our own thoughts, worries and fears at some point. Or maybe someone else has responded to you in a way that belittled your feelings, all in an effort to encourage you to not worry and stay positive. The far-reaching effects of embodying a positive attitude to life still remain, but at what point does this positive outlook become counterproductive to your wellbeing?
In aiming to be the best version of ourselves, we can occasionally fall into the trap of thinking that all negative emotions are interrupting our path of optimism. We utter ‘sure what have I to be angry/upset (or insert any other negative emotion here) about, there’s people way worse off than me.’
Although the intention is admirable, it is not helpful because there are some things that positive vibes alone just cannot fix. You may consider yourself too busy to give any attention to these negative emotions, but they won’t disappear by themselves.
All feelings are valid, and there is a reason they are presenting at a specific time. They inform us and can offer the chance to think about things from a different perspective. The next time you find yourself trying to push negative feelings away, see if you can instead understand where they are coming from and then how they can be addressed.
In our relationships with others, our responses to these types of situations – when someone shares their struggle – can often come from a place of ‘not knowing’. In Ireland we are not the best at exploring sensitive details, and so when we find ourselves talking about challenging or uncomfortable topics, we can be unsure of how best to react. I think I should probe a little bit, but what will I do if they get upset? Or maybe I should point out all of the good things in their life in an attempt to distract from this issue?
In a desperate attempt to show empathy and make others feel better, we can minimise their experience. Efforts to move the conversation along to more familiar grounds can lead to a situation where the individual thinks that they should keep these thoughts or experiences to themselves as they have so much to be grateful for.
As the beautifully complex people we are, we need to allow ourselves to feel all of our emotions. Life can be so much better when you drop the facade and live more authentically.
By eliminating any self-imposed hierarchy, we can create an environment for both the positive and the negative emotions to flow. Lean into yourself and try to explore the feeling with a curious mind rather than a place of judgement.
In changing or challenging situations, be mindful that it is natural to feel conflicting emotions such as resistance and enthusiasm. The positive side of this (I know, I know...) is that we don’t have to choose one over another. We are capable of feeling more than one emotion and that is one of the undervalued joys of life.

Sadhbh Dunne is a qualified life coach based in Westport. She is the founder of Ember Coaching (embercoaching.ie) and can be reached at sadhbh@embercoaching.ie.