In general, negativity gets a bad rap.
It’s understandable, though, in the Highly Sensitive and Introvert worlds. Because, let’s face it, negative vibes can go deep, settle, and fester. They can spread like a kind of cancer that disintegrates the fabric of self esteem, confidence, trust, and relationship.
Blaming, shaming, humiliating, victimizing (others or one’s self), bullying, judging, the “‘isms”: racism, sexism, classism, agism, etc.)…these are all forms of negativity.
There is no redeeming virtue for this kind of negativity: it’s toxic.
But negativity is also normal. It’s human to feel negative when you’re frustrated, hurt, sad, and angry.
It’s human to appraise a situation, a person, or people from a negative perspective. And that can be a good thing. Even a beautiful thing at times.
It can encourage you to be conservative when you get to know someone. You might take your time. You might plan for unforeseen situations because “you know” something could happen, and you’d prefer to be prepared.
Sometimes taking a negative stance in a conversation draws out a different perspective that widens and deepens your thinking. And sometimes, feeling negative can invite others to express their compassion toward you and help you feel less alone.
Negativity can help you know the obstacles that could keep you from being successful. If you can think of as many things that could go wrong when you try something new, you can make different “mistakes” on your path to success.
This kind of realistic, situational negativity offers an opening, an opportunity to learn and to solve problems. This is when negativity is beautiful and needed.
It takes a certain kind of muscle to practice being gritty or resilient (or dare I say positive?) when you’re a sensitive soul and feeling overwhelmed by the loud and insensitive world that can surrounds us.
But it’s this realistic negativity that contributes to developing persistence and resilience.
I’ve been thinking about negativity because it’s easy to fall into thinking about negativity as one dimensional: bad.
You might be tempted to try and only surround yourself with positivity, and then lose out on what can be beneficial about negativity. Or, you might be unable to recognize the toxic kind of negativity that subtly poisons you.
You might be like me. Despite your sensitivity, you might be unaware that you can say and do toxic things.
Sometimes, I wonder if being so sensitive and caring so much makes you more prone to the toxic kind of negativity.
I read an article on an introvert site this morning with a lot of the toxic kind of negativity. I see it in groups, too. I’m not throwing any stones because I know how easy to fall into that kind of pattern.
With the last several young children I saw who were victims of crime, I hit the rock bottom of burnout. The children themselves were amazing. Resilient. The burnout did not come from witnessing what they experienced.
In one situation, I’d worked so hard and created a team of professionals, parents, foster parents, teachers, and lawyers in place to create a web of caring adults to “hold” a child. No one person was responsible for doing it all.
It was hard, but we made huge progress. After a period of two months with more than 10 inpatient psychiatric hospital stays (for danger to self), he achieved 10 months of stability in the community with these supports.
He was learning to read. He was making friends. He was beginning to trust his caregiver. And he was beginning to address the trauma of abuse.
It was an incredible thing for me to watch this child begin to heal and stabilize because of the effort of this team of committed adults. It was so powerful to be part of the power of what can happen in a committed group of people.
When I’d received the referral for this child, there were no supports in place, and he was falling through every proverbial crack in “the system.” To watch his progress and the healthier relationships he was developing was incredibly heartening.
And then one day, the child’s child welfare worker made a unilateral decision that removed the child from a stable, loving foster home. Every single professional and caring adult involved argued against the decision, and warned against the consequences.
I was heartbroken for this child. He lost everything: school, friends, community, lifetime relationships, religious community He was moved hours away from his siblings and was placed into a group home with much older kids.
I was angry. I blamed this child welfare worker for ruining this child’s life.
It was because of her that this child was now going to be even likelier to be illiterate, be incarcerated, and be sex-trafficked. The odds had already been stacked against this child, but this child welfare worker’s decision cost that child the slim chance he had.
Of course, this was my thinking at the time. It reflects the level of negativity I felt. And, it still is more likely than not that he will be in an endless cycle of poverty and incarceration and trauma. But not inevitable.
The kind (and degree) of negativity I expressed wasn’t situational or realistic. It was global. His entire life had been decided in one (really) bad decision.
There wasn’t any opening or possibility for growth. There wasn’t any invitation for others to offer compassion for how broken and helpless I felt.
There was no ability to take into account what other people might come into this child’s life, or what experiences he was yet to have that could shape his life differently.
Did I have a right to be angry, and to feel all of the “negative” feelings that came with the experience? Absolutely. They’re part of being human and experiencing such deep pain and hurt. What that child welfare worker did was negligent, at best.
But was the negativity and the blame (that I can still feel if I let myself “go there” after a couple of years) toxic? Absolutely. It poisoned me and was toxic to people around me. And I didn’t even know it.
I was justified. I was outraged. But staying in that kind of toxic negativity left me feeling helpless and powerless. It kept me going around and around in the same dead end loop. There was nothing I could do.
It was having this kind of experience repeatedly that burned me out.
When I began to develop an awareness of this toxic negativity, I realized that it kept me stuck.
Once I began to shift into a different mindset, I realized that it reflected a deeper sense of helplessness at feeling so much pain in the world, and not being able to do anything about it.
I realized that I had narrowly defined how I could help people as a clinical social worker.
I realized that as long as I worked “within the system,” I would keep running into the same kind of experience. The same obstacles. The same sense of helplessness and hopelessness that I could make a real difference in the world.
My view of the child welfare system is negative. I see it for what it is according to my experience (and I recognize it is not the full picture). But it is a realistic negativity that opens up the possibility for solutions.
It is a negativity that opens up the possibility for change. It’s not a blaming negativity.
Despite there being good people in the system, the system is not able to protect many children. It is not able to ensure safety, education, quality health and mental health care, and stability for these children. Child welfare workers are overworked and underpaid and exposed to so much trauma in their clients.
It’s a kind of negativity that creates the opportunity to ask what other ways there might be to make a difference in the world. It is a way out of the dead-end loop and out of the toxicity.
Like anything, negativity isn’t all bad or all good. Learning to recognize the toxic kind is so important for us sensitives because it can suck you dry and poison you from the inside out without you even being aware of it.
But it’s just as important to recognize how powerfully good and beautiful negativity can be when it can create an opportunity for change.
PS: I am sharing this video because it warmed my heart. It is a story of a kid making a difference in the world. He decided he wanted to help sick children in hospitals by buying them teddy bears.
But when his mom told him the family didn’t have the money to buy teddybears, he found another way.
Image Credit: Harry Pammer
Eva Rubin, MPH/LCSW
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