In the last 15 months, my life has taken a sharp turn on its axis. It’s been a rollercoaster of self-doubt, apprehension and a time when a shot of positivity through my veins would have come in handy.
My own spiralling negativity seemed to be infectious and my worries spread to friends who concurred with my indecision and reservations. Or, at least, that’s what I thought as I battled my decisions and they belittled them.
In truth, I was swimming in a sea of toxic friendships that wouldn’t throw me a lifebuoy if I was drowning.
My whirlwind rollercoaster saw me leave behind a 12-year career with admirable job security and career advancement. I jumped ship, became self-employed, working from home with a preschooler and a toddler. Of course, I doubted myself, wondering if I was doing the right thing changing career, abandoning financial certainty for family ties.
Friends doubted me. Questioning myself was all well and good considering I was going through a significant career shift with a growing family. What I didn’t need was friends agreeing with me and adding to my negativity. What I needed was for them to bring me out of the slump. At crossroads in life, our friends are the ones we need to show us that the glass is half full, to egg us on and not suck us dry.
As my kids grew and my new career path took shape, I slowly alienated myself from the friends who excelled a dark cloud over my sunny days. I found myself in the company of friends who were positive about my choices. Friends with a powerful outlook on life that rubbed off on me.
Dr Malie Coyne, clinical psychologist and NUI Galway lecturer, explains why our natural instinct in times of need is to seek out those that shine a bright light on us. "Being with warm people is the ultimate mood-changer and the answer is found in your brain. A meeting of the minds, or a good laugh with the right person, can activate optimal levels of your 'feel-good' brain chemicals and drastically lower your stress levels, by relaxing your heart rate and blood pressure. The endorphins can act as a natural pain reliever, whilst the serotonin release can serve as an antidepressant or mood lifter without the side effects."
When I was mid-decision, hashing out ideas about what I should or shouldn’t do as regards childcare, employment, and the choices I had, I was faced with “don’t do it” more than “go for it”. My friends were not the spark I needed to make a choice with confidence. They were bringing me down and I realised these negative friendships needed to be towed.
Looking back, I can see the pattern of dejection amongst these friends who, if I had listened to them, would have left the safety bar up on the rollercoaster. Research tells us that associating with a destructive social circle has a negative impact on our health, triggering anxiety, obesity and damaging our overall happiness. Spotting toxic friendships sounds simple but it’s easy to miss what is suffocating us.
Dr Coyne highlights particular behaviour patterns from those who are more conscious of their own well-being than that of their friends. She says: “They don’t have time for your problems when there’s something going wrong in their life. They expect you to be on speed dial with a shoulder to cry on. But when you’re going through a tough time, this friend is nowhere to be seen. They may be dismissive of your feelings, say they don’t have time to talk to you, or even worse, ignore you altogether.
“They unnecessarily point out your flaws. While it’s great to be frank with your friends when they ask for your honest advice, some friends can become overly critical for no good reason. Hanging out with a fault-finder can be extremely damaging to your self-esteem. If you’re scared to tell them about your problems because they’ll point out everything you did wrong to cause them, it’s a sign you need to put the friendship on ice.
“They don’t support your life goals. A good friend will celebrate your achievements, give you a boost when you’re lacking in confidence and push you to achieve your goals. A toxic friend will try to drag you down for their benefit. They may belittle your pay rise, talk you out of putting yourself forward for a promotion, or try to sabotage your dreams out of jealousy.”
The power of the crowd is overwhelming, especially when the crowd is pulsating with negative fever. I found I couldn’t be me around them. I answered questions with false truths to avoid conflict or having to listen to them bash my choices.
Finding myself cooling these toxic friendships has made a big difference to my life and especially to my outlook towards my new career. The friends I keep close may not always ooze a soft centre full of positivity, but they are supportive and keep me away from negative feelings. Because of them, I’ve pushed harder and better to be where I am today.
Having a positive mindframe is more powerful than you could imagine. I asked Becky O'Haire, who blogs at Cuddle Fairy, with the tagline "There's Positivity Around Every Corner," why being surrounded by positive people is important to her.
She says: “The people that we spend our time with really influence how we think and feel. If we are surrounded by negative people it’s easy to get pulled into the negativity. Or else it’s a lot of effort to stay positive despite the negativity. Positivity is contagious and being in a group of positive people feels really uplifting and light.”
O’Haire launched a Twitterchat recently, #PositivityCorner, Wednesdays at 9pm, to reinforce and amplify this optimistic approach to life. She says: “There is such a big difference between living in drama and upset versus living in positivity. Being positive has cleared my thoughts of worrying and over analysing, which used to weigh down my mind.”