After reading this piece on toxic friendships and conscious self-(re)construction, I have been thinking a lot about the social media messages I am bombarded with daily. There is one in particular that has been chafing my think-space. It goes something like, “What you see in the world is what you are putting into the world.” Basically, if you see negativity, it’s because you choose to because you are committed to a negative outlook. Reflect on the negativity you are seeing and your personal negative patterns will be revealed.
I have known that to be true. Very true. But I have also intimately known that to be incredibly, 100%, destructively false. Let me explain.
A few years ago I started a journey into compassionate communication. I still don’t know how the class came up on my radar or how I ended up joining. Who I was at the time–well, I was a scared, agoraphobic, second-time mother and introvert being slammed with violent flashbacks and horrific nightmares. I had intrusive thoughts. The kind that include how much easier it would be on the world if you just drove your car off that bridge with your kids inside it. I was mired in severe post-partum depression which triggered multiple aspects of post-traumatic stress disorder for me. Scraping by is not really what I was doing. I was barely moving at all. Still, I ended up in Rhonda’s class. And she was amazing.
Stay with me. I’m not actually off track here. The gist is, I was a negative person who saw negativity in everything.
I want to pause here and clarify that it was not mental illness that made me negative. It was my choice to focus on negatives that made me negative. This is an incredibly important distinction.
My life was filled with drama, including a toxic friendship that exploded in a passionate tumult of broken trust. Not because the woman I was friends with was a bad person. We were both in a cycle of negative vulnerability. When we came together, we brought that out in each other. Our friendship shattered when we had a high school style fight about how we neither of us was hearing the other. We weren’t listening. And we weren’t very nice when we expressed that to each other. End scene. I have no doubt we could pick up our friendship, heal any open past wounds and move forward today. But we weren’t ready to then. That’s okay.
Enter Nonviolent Communications 101. The class showed me that I was not meeting my own needs with or through communication. In fact, I didn’t even know what my needs were.
In order to communicate with empathy, I had to look at myself and recognize how I was doing in that moment.
I had to know my boundaries in that moment. For example, if I was highly anxious about my child potentially falling off a slide while trying to listen to the story from another parent on the playground about her child’s fall off a slide, I would be feeding my anxiety. Those bad feelings have to go somewhere. They would probably end up directed at my child. I might yell at him about being unsafe, telling him he could have died (and throwing an adult tantrum while doing so), creating fear in him and shame in myself.
That pattern isn’t uncommon, but it wasn’t an easy thing to see in myself because it exposed the ways I was harming my child. And I was doing it by passing on negativity. So I learned how to say, “I really want to hear your story. It sounds like it was really scary. But I’m actually freaking out right now about my kid up there. Let me make sure he is safe and then I can listen fully.” Or, in an emergent situation, “Agh! Hold on a sec!” And after taking care of my child, “I’m sorry about that. I want to hear what you were telling me about your son falling. Thanks for letting me make sure mine was safe.”
It is such a relief to be able to tend to my own needs, the safety of my family and maintain friendships.
I actually have two very close, beautiful friendships with women now. I’ve never been able to maintain deep friendships with other women without growing competitive and hurt. It’s an amazing change.
Thus began my transformation from negative to positive. Through speech. Through meeting my own needs first.
Once I saw how affected I was (constantly shaking, crying, afraid, enraged, hurt) by a lack of boundaries in my relationships, I started that hard work of cleaning my social closet. I discovered that multiple relationships in my life– with friends and family–were toxic. I gave myself permission to step away and work on my self-confidence and joy before considering reengagement with those people. Some I told I needed space. Others, I ghosted, drifting out of their lives to avoid further toxicity.
I began to look for positive in the world. I reframed negative thoughts into positive statements. It was a lot like looking for shapes in clouds.
With negative experiences, I looked for positive outcomes. I taught myself to think happy thoughts and make happy choices. I continued to maintain my distance from people who pulled me away from becoming my best self. A part of this included a move away from religion as it had become a crutch for mental illness instead of a path to goodness. (More on that another time.)
It was hard. Really, really hard. The truth about negative people is they need you to be miserable with them. They work really hard to bring you into their reality. It’s not that they want to hurt you. They simply see their world as the only true way of being. Just like with religion, if you’re not initiated, you’re lost. And, at the primal, human level, it feels better not to suffer alone. Negativity is contagious. More so than positivity. That meant I had to be fully committed to the positive life I wanted. You’ve surely heard the phrase “put it out into the Universe.” Basically, set your intention and let people know. Let the world know. Sell it. State it like it WILL happen. Tell that it IS happening.
Make being happy your dream job and never stop applying.
Now, lest you think I’m down on religion, let’s replace “negative” with “positive” above. The truth about positive people is they need you to be positive with them. Just like with religion, if you are initiated, you’re saved. And, at the primal, human level, it feels better to celebrate with others.
At the time of this personal transformation, my husband was also deeply depressed. Every bit of positivity I let drift in his direction disappeared into the black cloud that surrounded him everywhere he went. I privately considered divorce for several weeks. But it wasn’t what I wanted. He wasn’t abusive. He wasn’t hateful. He was depressed. I loved him. So I took the advice of my therapist, who I started seeing as an outcome of choosing to be more positive, and reframed him every chance I got. He made a negative statement, I found a way to say it in a positive way. He hated himself, I pointed out what I loved. He thought a task was pointless, I found a positive outcome. He saw a disappointment as evidence of failure, I found a possible way it could contribute to success.
He hated it. He was furious. There was a very tense period where he simmered with constant rage. He fought against me, but I had tools for expressing my needs. When you . . . I feel . . . I’d like to request . . .
My first request was that he learn the lingo of compassionate communication. He was immediately much better at it than I was. We set up daily appointments where we checked in. We made clarity and honesty our relationship priorities, at which point I was clear and honest about not wanting to stay in the relationship we had. We could break our pattern. I’d seen it happen in a monumental way within my own family. I was willing to put in the work, but he had to meet me halfway. I never stop feeling lucky that he did, or certain that I would have left him if he didn’t. We set a three-month goal for positive change. It was a calculated risk of what I was sure I could afford. Beyond that, I would need to invest fully in building a life away from him.
This brings me back to the popular idea that negative finds negative or you only see negativity because you think negatively. That’s not always true. Positive frequently finds negative. Sometimes negative is dolled up in the middle of the dance floor. Beneath the bubbling exterior lies darkness and fear.
I had a dear friend who painted the world in glowing colors, showed me future of self-love and unconditional acceptance. I bought the dream, but at too great a cost. I realized belatedly that her effusive positivity only flowed inward. It appeared to flow outward, but it only touched me and others in order to feed her altar of self-worship.
Back to religion: she admitted she had her faults but she humbled herself before God. She made it to church every Sunday, family in tow. She thanked God for her good life, but distance has shown me her true god is her ego.
The woman I am describing is deeply insecure and determines her self worth by how others view her. That’s why she’s painted herself into an ivory castle, and it’s always why she’ll toss you in the moat she stocks with underfed gators if she suspects you don’t believe her facade.
And she does it all under the guise of removing negativity from her life so she can be her best self.
That’s what I’m talking about. It’s a letter of the law versus meaning situation. “I am justified in these actions because I am choosing positivity for myself, and this person is trying to bring negativity into my life by disagreeing with me.” What are we really doing to disagree? We are threatening to reveal her for who she really is. She won’t let anyone cut her pedestal down. Masked negativity can’t hold up next to authentic positivity, thus it becomes my fault that I “choose” to see negativity in her. Sound familiar?
In a nutshell, it’s possible for you to see negativity in other people’s self-professed positive actions or in situations without it being your fault. Recognizing someone else’s actions as negative does not mean you are a person who thinks negatively.
It is also important for you to bear witness to that negativity so you can protect yourself from harm.
Further, those around us have to choose to accept our positivity just like any other aspect of our character. I could have stuck with my husband if he hadn’t changed and blamed myself the whole time, but it’s not my job to change others. You and me, we can try to be the light in the dark and lead the way, but it’s up to them to change themselves.
What are the ways you practice positivity in your life? What do you do in negative social situations?