Permission to be Negative

by Tim Olsen, MA, LPC

I’ve noticed something during this quarantine. There were no books and academic articles written before this pandemic experience to help us navigate how to be stuck with each other for so long. I’ve also noticed that I started snapping at my wife more and visa-versa. That’s weird for us. But, these are strange times. So how do we navigate this? I have an idea.

Be negative with each other… wait, what? Track with me here. Negativity can be organizing, clarifying, and therapeutic if done appropriately. But, don’t stop there, once you get open and honest about the tough things, look for the good. Keep reading if you want another perspective on how to manage this lock-down experience we are all in together.

I am a little scared to say this first point. I have never, until now, recommended it directly in my counseling career.

Commiserate.

Intentional – Joint – negativity. A complain session. Get with your household during this quarantine and discuss what is hard for you… What IS hard for you by the way? Is it being cooped up? Not hanging out with friends? Stress of unemployment, finances? Having your partner or your kids all-up-in-your-business all. the. time? E-learning and fighting your kids to actually do it? Fear of running out of toilet-paper? How your partner smells, chews, or is getting short with you? How your kids are complaining? There’s a lot to be upset about. Most likely your partner, kids, parents, have their own list…. And, brace yourself, you may be a PART of what is hard for them too.

The good news is, you are NOT what actually IS hard for them, and they are NOT what IS actually hard for you. So, why are we getting short or impatient with each other? Because we are around each other a lot to do so. Because this experience is HARD for ALL of us… Let me say this through an example – I usually have my quiet time in the morning when I have my first cup of coffee. I like to watch the news, read my bible, or sit and stare at the wall. I may be snippy to you when you come role out of bed (you’re usually gone by now), come out to the living room (I usually have it to myself), and begin to tell me about a dream you had (picture the Seinfeld episode…“you don’t say”). I may ignore you, be short with you, or even tell you to butt out! But, what if I remember, YOU are not the problem. Does this sound familiar? Picture your scenario…

Now, what if I take a second to reflect that it may FEEL LIKE I am annoyed at YOU (causing me to be snippy), but I’m actually annoyed by the disruption. You see, the disruption is the problem. The disruption is not YOUR fault but the fault of how different it is that we are spending this much, and this type of, time together during a quarantine. When, and how much time we are together during the quarantine is not YOUR fault, the disruption to our rhythm is at fault. Therefore, you are not the enemy, the disruption to our rhythm is the enemy….

Phew… that’s a lot to have to track.

Put another way, at the end of the day, this quarantine is hard for me when my rhythm is disrupted (and for other reasons too). I used to get an hour uninterrupted in the morning to drink my coffee and stare at the wall, but now I don’t. Sure, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that bad. But, that together with the other reasons it’s hard for me, and fact that it’s hard for you too (probably for different reasons), begins to add up. I’m sure you’d like to be more accepting of the rhythm disruption but if your honest it’s really hard to do it. I bet your partner and or kids and or parents would like to be more understanding. But if they are honest, it’s hard for them too.

So, why don’t we commiserate about those hard things? What’s the harm in talking about how hard this is for us? Nothing, as long as I don’t blame you and you don’t blame me. Consider these options:

  • Option 1: We can try suffering quietly, stuffing it down, trying to control it. With this option, chances are good it will eventually boil over into a conflict or at least resentment.
  • Option 2: We can suffer loudly using unchecked negativity and blame, not hearing that other people are suffering too. With this option chances are good it will get us into a conflict quickly.

Neither of these help us feel better for long and add to the stress at home. But, what about option three.

  • Option 3: I stop, reflect that we are PART of a larger problem for each other, thenwe can point the negativity at the problem, not the person. We can then share what we need or want without blame.

The first two options don’t work for my theory of having permission to be negative. If you are stuffing negativity you run the risk of anger, resentment, and shame. If you are word vomiting negativity you run the risk of anger, resentment, and shame. But, if you can agree together, commiserate on, the difficult things for each/all of you, you run the risk of comradery…It’s no secret a common enemy can bring people together…Believe me, there is enough space in your home for all of you to be having a difficult time. But not if you are fighting about it; that’s when it really gets crowded. If each of you understand that it is okay to be having a hard time and for each other to also be having a hard time, the hard time might not be so hard. So, you have my permission as a professional counselor to be negative. But, only if you promise to try staying to option 3 and keep reading….

Unchecked negativity is of course a bit like the virus that is causing us all to be in this situation in the first place. Even if its shared negativity, it can spread easily, thoroughly, and exponentially. However, sometimes negativity creates space for positivity. Sometimes we need permission to say “this sucks”. Sometimes we need permission to struggle, and, for PART of that to be each other. Being Pollyanna Suzy Sunshine all the time is not reality, just like being a constant Debbie Downer is a horrible way to live. Harm comes when we place the locus of what “sucks” on another person, especially someone we love. Properly experienced negativity can settle our minds, help us have space to give and receive the antidote. If we organize the negative, we can minimize its damage, better understand it, and better treat it.

Okay, now you have had a @$*&! – session and created some space for comradery in your home. Let’s fill the space we created with something positive; what people are doing that is awesome, cute, nice, loving, compassionate. The trick is this. I am not actually suggesting that you binge watch all of Oprah’s “random acts of kindness” shows for ideas on how to make someone’s day. Actually, I suggest you CONTINUE to do kind things and add noticing them in others. My theory is, if you are a regular human interacting with other humans, the odds are that you are doing some kind and thoughtful things now and again anyway. I hope you are. Please say you are. (If you aren’t, then refer back to Oprah). Consider these things that might be happening around you more frequently and noticeably during this time:

  • Is your partner helping with cleaning or cooking more?
  • Do they have to go to work in this tough time?
  • Did your kid take out the garbage or do something the first time you asked?
  • Did your children shoot hoops in the driveway together without fighting?
  • Did your spouse pick you up a Frappuccino at the drive thru without you asking; or even with you asking but without an attitude or push-back?

Think nice things, kind things, normal everyday things that help your home function. They are happening all around you. Catch somebody doing it. Tell them. Lift their spirits.

Here’s a couple ideas of how to do this creatively to get your ideas flowing:

  • When you see something good, nice, kind, thoughtful happen in your house by someone or someones, tell them right then.
  • Put a whiteboard and couple of dry erase markers on the kitchen table. Every time you see someone in your house doing something nice, or even think about something you like about someone in your house, write it on the board. Try to get three things today. When that person walks through the kitchen, they get to have a positive moment seeing their name and a kind thing they did…Spirit. Lifted.
  • Grab a bowl, basket, or jar and some 3×5 cards. Cut up the cards into 3 pieces to take pressure off filling a big space (and to not kill too many trees). Put a few colored pens with those cards next to the container. Write a kind thing you see down on a card, drop it in the jar. At the end of the day, take a second before everyone goes up to their caves for the night and take turn reading the notes.
  • If you eat together, be courageous enough to start a conversation about what 3 good, kind, thoughtful, or helpful things you saw in each other today. Take turns and watch what happens to the mood.
  • When you see something good, nice, kind, or thoughtful happen in your house by someone or someones, tell them right then… wait, did I say that already? Yes, yes I did.

Let’s review. I think we can all acknowledge that we all can so easily get into our own little negative spaces. When this happens, we forget some stuff:

  • We forget that everyone is having a tough time somehow (most likely differently from you but difficult nonetheless).
  • We forget who the enemy is, not each other, but the disruption to our rhythm (that’s negativity we have in common), and we are all a part of this unwillingly.
  • We forget that we are in this tough time together; we are not alone.
  • We forget that nice, kind, good, and thoughtful things are happening around us all the time.
  • We forget that people like to hear that they are doing things well, not just that they are missing the mark somehow.

Step one, permission to be negative: clarify the enemy and use the negativity toward it productively. Remember you are not the enemy, and neither are the others holed up with you, but be willing to hear that you may unintentionally be a part of the disruption that is. If we all know that nobody is out to get us and that they know we are not out to get them, facing a common tough time can actually build comradery creating space to give and receive good things.

Step two, look for good. It’s happening outside (at 6 feet intervals), but starting in your home, people are doing nice things. Kindness shows up even in things we are “supposed to be” doing. Look for those things, and when you find them, share them. Spirits are lifted when we you catch people in the act of kindness. I’m pretty sure you’ll be caught too. We got this. The quarantine won’t last forever. Let’s try to spend it being honest with how hard it is and being quick to find good things in our close quarters companions

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