Question: So Coach Heather, if you hate “positivity” and toxic positivity, how do you explain negativity?
The answer has to do with something we haven’t been talking about enough: trauma.
Here’s my answer, and it’s going to evolve into something I think is very important heading into 2021 and — ultimately — a post-Covid world. It’s time to start talking about trauma and becoming trauma-informed. Yes, you. Yes, me. We all must become more trauma-informed in our daily lives. Because this covid thing is ongoing and won’t have a nice, tidy ending. Years of trauma await much of society.
There is true negativity in many forms. True negativity shows up as gossip, procrastination, negative self-talk, seeking validation outside yourself, lack of self-empowerment, low self-esteem, wasting time, and so on.
Other forms of negativity include using substances and abusing them instead of using tools that ACTUALLY work like yoga, meditation, breathing, tapping, etc; trying to live up to unrealistic expectations; staying in draining relationships and situations; and every other thing that shows our refusal to grow.
I can say this because I’ve been there. I’ve done all those things.
I’m not the life coach who’s going to tell you to “be positive!” Positivity is not some panacea.
What does “be positive” even mean?
Why do people even say that? It’s general, not specific. No one likes a complainer or a Debbie Downer, but when someone says, “Be positive,” ask them what they truly mean.
Because 9/10 times, they may just not be emotionally evolved enough to listen to you vent or explain your problem and feelings to them.
Often others respond to our sharing of our ugly truths and feelings by branding us as “complaining” or “being negative.” When someone does that to us, it just means we picked the wrong person to share with and so we get the very non-trauma-informed response of “be positive” in return. I learned my lesson — if you don’t pick the right people to confide in, you will be chastised for expressing “negative” feelings and told to “be more positive.” We all need to “complain” or “vent” sometimes. It doesn’t mean we are a “Debbie Downer.” It means we are human. But we need to consider the safe person to do it with!
This is because society has created over the last decade or so this pervasive belief that hearing or being around anything “negative” is contagious and will somehow cause something horrible to happen to you.
Thing is, we have to refuse this garbage thinking. I still blame that dumb movie, “The Secret,” which I was way into at the time it came out and even owned the DVD.
But that’s a whole other blog post I’ve written before...
We have to learn to be present for others.
You would think this is something I wouldn’t have to teach or try to wake others up to...but, sadly, I feel it’s TIME.
Become aware: are you able to hold space and be present for others?
Or are you answering their hurt with non-trauma-informed reactions? Because “be positive” is a reaction that isn’t trauma-informed. Being able to be present, hold space, and hold your boundaries in order to be present for another person is a life-affirming and trauma-informed response.
This is one of the greatest solutions, I feel, to the set of problems the world faces right now.
Learning to be present for the complaints or vents and “negativity” is something we have to do for our loved ones. If you can’t have “negativity” around you then what you really need is “boundaries” and NOT toxic positivity. Holding proper boundaries helps you help others. Holding your boundaries strong allows you to be present for another’s strong emotions or even a crisis — without feeling brought down. It helps you hear that person — not just listen — but hear them.
Want to know what’s positive and life-affirming? NOT having to preach “be more positive” to someone going through something or sharing a “negative” (i.e. difficult) emotion. That whole, “why don’t you be more positive” thing is just another useless form of spiritual bypassing.
The truly spiritual among us know we have to be present for the ugly stuff.
We have to start now.
Life’s not all puppy kisses, baseball games, and ice cream cones.
This Covid-19 mess is far from over and what I am noticing amongst my friends in the medical field is an extreme stress response. These people are going to need trauma-informed care for a very long time after this is over — maybe forever. As someone who has dealt with a lifetime of PTSD and anxiety, let me tell you, there’s a bumpy road ahead for our frontline workers to recover from this mess.
Back to the original question — how to explain negativity?
Because you aren’t going to tell one of my ER nurse friends right now that, “things will get better if they just be more positive,” will you? That sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Saying such a thing to a nurse treating covid patients right now would NOT be trauma-informed. When that nurse is 12, 18, 24 months out of this crisis and still experiencing stress, depression, anxiety, and PTSD, covid may feel like it’s in our rear-view mirror. You may be tempted to tell that nurse they should, “be more positive and it will get better.” Nope! Shut that face. Keep that crazy to yourself.
So what helps?
Be present. Lean to listen and hold space. Learn to NOT tell people to “be more positive.” That’s a phrase that needed to die a lot earlier in 2020 anyway. Instead of preaching that toxicity, we will have to learn to be present for the not-so-pretty emotions. We have to allow ourselves and others to feel and think...exactly what we feel and think.
Then we move on. We have to allow it to come — and allow it to go. Holding on is a form of negativity. Anything counterproductive is negativity.
But if you’re one of those “Positive Pollyanna” types, here’s how you can really help. (And get some help for yourself to stop being a Positive Pollyanna while you're at it). Learn to have boundaries. Learn to listen and hold space — and that someone else’s strong emotions have NO hold on you. I never met a Positive Pollyanna who didn’t have a boundary issue and wasn’t overly into helping others. (Read that again). Learn that you CAN watch the news and stay informed — without having that become detrimental to your well-being. Learn to let things flow in and out.
Learn to recognize TRUE negativity in your OWN habits.
It’s going to look like whatever wastes your time, energy, and keeps you stuck. Whenever you feel the need to tell SOMEONE else to “be more positive” it’s actually time to take a look at yourself. Because that’s it! That’s the cue! Whenever you feel tempted to tell someone that — shut your pie hole. It’s a signal TO YOU that you aren’t hearing them. You may be listening but you aren’t hearing. You may be sitting there with that person but you’re not present.
Being present doesn’t mean you have to be comfortable.
Telling someone to “be more positive” is the signal that you are trying to “fix” them. (A boundary issue for you). It’s also the signal that you aren’t aware of their trauma. Telling someone “be more positive” is the signal that you are uncomfortable and that you require some more reflection in order to be able to sit with someone struggling and become more present.
I learned this from years of working with victims in my time as a para-social worker in the addiction field. I worked with trafficking victims, homeless people, and victims of the most heinous crimes you could imagine. As they told me their stories and as I worked to hold space for their healing and to help them to stay sober — do you think I once would disrespect them by saying, “Hey, you should try being more positive!” Hell no.
We all have our own trauma. It’s not a contest.
If we are to emerge better from this global crisis, we have to learn to become more trauma-informed in our every day lives.
We have to drop damaging old ways — like that “be more positive” phrase — and begin focusing on how we are going to become more human. Rattling off fortune cookie phrases is empty and meaningless when most of society will be coming out of this experience much more traumatized than when we went in.
I’m grieving my fourth death in 2020. Don’t tell me how to do anything at this point...
It also needs to be said that the tired “be positive” stuff is just entry-level personal development anyway. I want to go deeper. I intend to offer real solutions instead of spouting the fortune cookie stuff many online life coaches are spewing. I’m a real person and so are YOU! We require real-world strategies for keeping stress down and that productive feeling of FLOW high.
Welcome to being the architect of your own destiny...