The last couple of years have been a really long journey for me in shedding the baggage picked up from various parts of my life. This year in particular, I’ve tried to adjust my mode of thinking to shed the negative. Engaging it brings me nothing. It’s like Marie Kondo’s tidying for the mind. If a relationship, an activity, a train of thought doesn’t bring you joy, why do you engage it? Why eat a meal you hate? Why waste mental energy on a person who doesn’t respect you?
I fully realize that the ability to even try to take a zen attitude about things like relationships and work and family drama comes from a place of privilege. A mix of innate gifts, hard work, and pure luck being born in the skin I am in, in the family I am, and with the social network I have allow me a level of freedom to choose where to focus my energy that not every person has. My own obligations to others have waxed and waned and impacted this attitude, but I won’t pretend that those factors have any bearing on my underlying privilege. So, I hear you. You read this and it stinks of white, upper-middle class sanctimonious bullshit. And on the facts, you are not wrong. Nothing I can say will change those facts, and I accept them. This post, while written from a place of privilege, isn’t about my privilege. It’s me trying to explain what I have done to try to change my thinking over the past year, to cast off the things in my life that were making me miserable and not bringing me joy. Hopefully, privilege aside, you find some value in these words. If not, see number 4 below.
1. Stop focusing on the petty and the judgmental.
I wouldn’t have called myself a petty person last year, but I no longer have room in my brain for ANY judgmental thinking and petty negativity. It’s one thing to question why another person makes a decision to try and understand that decision and to be able to communicate with them productively. Arriving at a carefully crafted judgment of another person’s intentions is a process. Petty crap isn’t.
Example: I might look at another woman, and think “Ugh, that outfit is horrible!” That’s a petty snap judgment. If I ask myself “Why did that woman choose to wear that outfit?” The answer could be — It was all that was clean this morning. It was a gift or something sentimental. She has something much more important on her mind. She just likes it because it makes her feel good. In every single response above, there is a good reason for her wearing that outfit. There is not one instance where I wouldn’t make the same decision as her (assuming alternate fashion sense on my part). I don’t have the time to go down this rabbit hole of reasoning in questioning every person’s miscellaneous life choices on an ongoing basis, but I can extrapolate out from the example above that they probably have a reason for choosing to wear or do whatever thing I might be making a petty judgment on. The only one wasting time on that judgment is me. The only one having a reaction is me. The only one being negative is me. Why would I have time for that? I shouldn’t! Notwithstanding this tenet, if Clinton Kelly or Stacy London from TLC’s former show What Not to Wear ever reads this, I love you guys!
2. Treat people with kindness unless they give you a reason not to.
This one is just as obvious as the first, but it has even better benefits. Being nice to people makes me feel good. Treating them with respect and having a good interaction with them keeps my day moving in a happy direction. I don’t like being an asshole. It doesn’t give me any pleasure. It’s possible it gives other people pleasure, and those people maybe are sociopaths and have bigger fish to fry than whether or not they approach others with kindness, but they are also probably not reading this. Of course, you can’t control how other people act toward you, but you can control how you respond. Person C can’t control how person A feels about person B. But person C can control how person C treats person A and person B. Make up your own mind about people. Treat them with kindness until they do something to undermine that respect you’ve given them.
3. If someone is toxic, dissociate.
My mantra of being nice and kind and giving absolutely stops when someone undermines my trust. Love, companionship, and animity are all positive feelings. They mean nothing without trust. We don’t always have the option of just completely cutting out toxic people. If you can, do it. Don’t look back. They have no claim to your consideration or time nor do they deserve a moment of either. Cut the cord and walk away; and most of all guard yourself against future, wasted interactions. You will know when someone is no longer worthy of you.
For those instances where you can’t just walk away from toxicity, whether because of work, family, or other obligations or reasons, learn to dissociate. I still recommend leaving any toxic situation, when you can, but if you can’t, the goal is to really internalize that you have no power over that other person’s behavior. You can’t make them happy. You can’t make them like you. You can’t make them respect you. There’s no point in wasting a single moment of your time or energy trying to change anything about that other person. The best thing you can do is build up those things in your life that make you happy and don’t give that toxic person the satisfaction of dragging you into negativity. This is absolutely not easy. Dissociation might be an iterative process. You might inch along. You may get dragged back in, but keep your eye on the prize. Find your tribe among the toxicity. Support them. Show them the kindness.
For the toxic people you can’t cut off, stand up for yourself to the extent you can, but more than that, protect your happiness from being drained away by them. After a toxic person drained me dry emotionally, it took me almost four months to get my self esteem back. Four months of self-care. I’ve shed so much toxicity this year that it’s hard to categorize the ways and timing in which areas of my self esteem have bounced back, but that one instance, I could pinpoint the moment at which I felt worthy of love again. NO ONE should have that amount of power over how you feel about yourself.
You aren’t always going to be able to tell that someone is toxic off the bat, but you should practice listening closely to your emotions. Your feelings will tap you on the shoulder, even if it’s softly and quietly whisper that another person’s behavior makes you uncomfortable. It makes you feel bad about yourself. It makes you feel beholden. And when your mind whispers, listen and try your hardest to identify it. Don’t just shrug it off. Don’t try to look at it from their side. Protect that whisper. Don’t discard it until you understand it. Maybe that can help you avoid four months of self-care to feel beautiful or worthy again.
I pride myself on empathy, but my empathy has to be reserved for people who have my trust. You have to trust your own mind first to know when that trust has been earned or when it’s been revoked. Stop giving your empathy to people who have squandered your trust. It’s okay to separate love and trust. They aren’t the same. At the end of the day, does it make any logical sense to open yourself up to someone you don’t trust?
4. Not everyone likes you, and that’s okay.
Again, this is obvious. It comes back to control. Ultimately, you only have partial control over whether someone hates you. You might contribute to that assessment with cruddy behavior. You might be untrustworthy or cruel or selfish. That’s possible. We’re only human. Even the best of us have bad days, make bad decisions, or drop the ball. I’ve definitely done it, and you know you have too. On the other hand, you might bend over backwards to be kind to someone, to be respectful, to be considerate, and they STILL might hate you. Your behavior is ultimately only one of myriad reasons why someone forms a negative opinion of you. Whether you earn the enmity or not, you can only really control how you respond to it. You can choose to spend a lot of energy to change that person’s opinion about you, or you can choose to brush it off and go on with your life, knowing that the people who do like you and love you are there for you and have your back. Or maybe, after a cost-benefit analysis, it seems worthy to expend energy to change that opinion. But how much energy makes sense? At what point does it stop becoming a net positive to gain another’s approval? Is this search for approval from every person (even the toxic ones) crowding out the relationships that enhance your daily life? Is it draining you and keeping you from enjoying time with others who do respect and like you? It’s a tough balance, but in the end, striving for 100% popularity from everyone in your life is an impossibility. After all, you only control one variable.
None of these shifts are quick and easy. Like any habit, they take repetition and tending. Breaking yourself out of a cycle of negativity takes time; I’m still working on it myself. But I can say that I am SO much happier shedding the judgment, treating people with kindness, not putting up with toxicity from others around me, and accepting that I’m not everyone’s favorite person. The only thing any one of us has to live with in the end is our own mind, so protect it and do what you can to be a person who wakes up not regretting how you treated other people or how you let them treat you. Does this solve every interpersonal problem you might have? Not even close! But the more you can make your random day positive and kind, the easier it is to be emotionally ready to face those large challenges. Stockpile positivity for the days, weeks, months, or even years that may drain you.