Sometimes I find myself in this mysterious way of thinking. It goes something like this: I shouldn’t have this problem, or be this way, or think this way, or be dealing with this…because I’m a therapist. It’s like I might feel that being a therapist means my life is all harmonious and all the kinks have been worked out. Wouldn’t that be nice? But yet I often find I have to sort through problems just like my clients do, they just don’t know about it :)
The truth is, we all have difficult situations. We all deal with people who gossip, seem to thrive on being negative, and look for the bad. We have the work stress, the long to-do list, the random phone calls we all pray we never get giving us bad news. So, how do we deal with it? This post will deal more with dealing with negativity from other people.
Here are some options I’ve tried, that really don’t work out so well:
-We could ruminate: We could re-run the situation in our head over and over…really for no reason, other than it gives our brain something to do and adds more stress
-We could become self-righteous: “If only they could be more like me.” Yikes. Yes, been there, too many times. If only they had the same opinion and viewpoint, right?
-We could cut them off: This is a favorite of mine. And it goes against so much of what I know as a therapist! Yet when tensions get high, every part of me (at least every part absorbed in the conflict) wants to cut the person out of my life so I don’t have to deal with it.
-We could fight fire with fire: We could throw whatever judgements or opinions they’re sending our way right back at them. We can become defensive and try to prove our point. Yet in my time as a therapist or in my own life, I rarely see a heated conversation change someone’s thinking. We always fall into the trap thinking we can, but I just don’t see it happen.
Ok, so really, there’s a list of what not to do. I wish I was a finished product, never falling into any of these. I suppose God allows us to experience some of these things so we can better empathize with others. When I sit with clients and say, “what would it look like to let it go and stick to what you know to be true about you?”…I REALLY get the difficulty (and the freedom!) in “letting it go” and coming back to a centered place.
Before we get into what to do about it, I just can’t get through a post without dropping a quote.
Doesn’t that just make you laugh? I’ve heard it a few times recently and I just love it! Better yet, I also learned it’s the title of a book. It might need to be my next book club book, huh?
All right, now let’s get into what to do about anger, hostility, and negativity that comes our way.
1) Recognize if you’ve gotten yourself into a negative cycle of reacting. Maybe it’s one I listed above, maybe it’s something else. Being able to recognize where you are and what part you’re playing in your suffering will help. Maybe the person who flicked you off while driving is now hours away from that moment and moved on with your day, but you’re still ruminating over how someone could be so mean. Recognize it.
2) Find a helpful line to draw your mind in when it’s wandering. Here are a few examples:
People will always find a reason to be negative, but I don’t have to hold onto it
Their words (or actions) say more about them than me
I didn’t ask for their opinion, so I can just let it go
I get to choose how I want to be in this situation
3) Remind yourself the truths you know about people and relationships. I have a little leg up on this one, since I study people and relationships :) A lot of people struggle with differences. Taken from one of my favorite Bowenian Concepts, the idea of differentiation is allowing thoughts and feelings to be separated within yourself…and then it also means in your relationships you allow, accept, and even celebrate differences. Your opinion about ____ doesn’t mean anything about me. Many people make it about them. It doesn’t mean if they disagree with you that you’re wrong or that you’re a bad person, it just means you disagree. I’ve seen it way too often over the past two years. Everyone tries to convince everyone else to agree with them. We really don’t all have to have the same approach with covid precautions, or have the same political stance, or even have the same life goals. I might prioritize healthy eating and making all food from scratch, yet you might prioritize a quick meal on the go so you can get to the karaoke bar. The minute I think I am the right one or holier than you because I eat all vegetables from my garden I’ve shown my emotional immaturity. We can all just stay in our lane without making each different life choice we make as one that is “right” or “wrong.”
4) Send a prayer or loving thoughts their way. How you proceed with this one will depend on your spiritual background, but the idea is the same. I want to tell you of a situation that happened about a year ago where I really learned this lesson. When we were buying our current house we went through a difficult situation with the seller. I initially had some choice words to describe her that would pop into my head when I was especially exhausted from the situation. I realized this was helping no one, especially myself. I believe the more positive we can be, the more it helps us get through difficult situations. So, any time I found I didn’t understand her negativity or why things seemed so darn difficult, I decided to pray for her or say things like, “hmm, I wonder what’s happened in her life to lead her to this way of acting?” I didn’t say it with judgement, but with love. I don’t want to say I got to a place of pitying her, because I think pity can be a place that might get us too close to “I’m better” type thinking. But I really did get to a place where I noticed how much a rigid or closed off way of acting was hurtful to her and her experience of life. I was the one allowing it to impact me. When I made this shift to pray for her or send her love, it changed me. It might sound like I was being a sweetie pie praying for someone that was being a pain in my butt, but I realize all of it was less about her and created so much freedom in my own heart.
5) Find things in your life to appreciate or be grateful for. When it seems like one situation is clouding over the other areas, this step will be important. Life isn’t all bad, our thinking just makes it seem that way at times. One person’s comment doesn’t need to make everything else bleak or ruin everything else in our day. If you find it is messing with your view too much, take time to find other things to appreciate.
6) Get a balanced perspective from someone else. This is not a suggestion to gossip. Gossip is counter-productive. The purpose is not for growth, it’s really is about talking badly about someone. My suggestion here is to talk with an outsider for perspective when you feel muddled, trying to climb out of a hole without solid footing. The other day when someone’s unsolicited comment about my choices brought me down I went to my husband, asked for a hug and said, “what do you think? This has upset me and I know it shouldn’t. It makes me feel like everyone is talking behind my back and this person in particular seems to always look for the bad...which makes me feel like I’m walking on eggshells.” His response? “People will always talk. Stick to what you feel is right for you. This shows more insecurity and weakness in her. Don’t go to her level.” My husband is pretty level-headed and his advice is often solid, but going to him wasn’t even as much about the advice as it was feeling like I wasn’t alone in the situation. Go to someone you can trust to bring a balanced perspective.
7) Remember that the only change you can make is within yourself. Therapy 101…you can’t change others. So often we think the solution to our problem is if something external changes. I talk about this all the time when I work with athletes if they find they are thrown off their A-game by a ref’s call or an opponents trash talk. It’s not in our control, so let it go. The more we try to wish ourselves into a better family member/boss/neighbor or “if only they were different”, we get stuck. We can’t change them. Keep the focus on yourself and how you can come back to a centered place despite what they say or do. That person might always choose to be negative, yet we have a choice on how we want to respond.
As I've been typing this list I realize more ideas keep popping up on how to deal with the negativity. Yes, you might want to consider setting appropriate boudaries (see posts on boundaries here, here or here...yeah, I like the topic). It might even mean being aware of what types of people and atmospheres drain you and fill you with negativity versus what makes you experience more joy. You aren't stuck. You have choices. Happy rooting, everyone!