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I’m all for not wallowing in misery, looking on the bright side, and being positive and can do—when appropriate. But there’s a downside to being relentlessly upbeat that can cause emotional disconnection. Remember, emotional health means being able to go to anywhere your emotions and those of others take you.
There are two ways excess cheerfulness can play out. Say a friend who’s sharing her distress makes you uncomfortable, so you downplay what she’s feeling. She might be revealing a childhood in which she came home from school crying only to find her mother passed out on the living room couch. Or her father’s scary moods that made her hide under the bed. Without realizing it, you might become uncomfortable, keying into your Dad’s constant put downs and yelling or your mom’s narcissism which made you feel that your needs were invisible. Therefore, rather than validate what it must have been like for your friend, you try to make her feel better (in order to make yourself feel better) by saying something about how she at least had a roof over her head or how great her relationship seems to be with her parent now. This may take away your discomfort, but it disconnects you from your friend’s emotional experience.
Alternately, you may be on the receiving end of someone who is poorly attuned to your affect. Perhaps you’re telling your brother than you’ve been diagnosed with a benign tumor that may need surgery. Because your brother loves you, he may not want to face the possibility of you being in pain—or, worse, dying—so he insists that you shouldn’t be scared because you’re hearty and healthy and have the best doctors in town. These facts may be true, but his remark wildly misses the mark—that you’re scared and upset—which may leave you feeling misunderstood, invalidated, alone with your distress, and fearing that you may be making a mountain out of a molehill.
These kinds of interactions, though subtle, can cause emotional upset, especially if you’re the recipient of poor attunement. You might end up turning to food (or obsessing about food or weight) to soothe both your original feelings and the ones that arise from feeling misunderstood and invalidated. Better to look squarely at the dynamic and realize that your emotions are fine and that the problem is with the person who is unable or unwilling to empathize with you. Moreover, you’ll want to make sure that you’re attuned to others rather than tending to whitewash their feelings because they make you uncomfortable. It’s fine to be upbeat and encouraging—in fact, it’s an excellent outlook—but never at the expense of experiencing appropriate emotional discomfort.
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