I stopped watching the news years ago. It took me a little while to catch on to the fact that every time I watched it the result was one (or all) of the following three emotions; fear, anger, or disgust. Now I consider myself to be reasonably socially aware and responsible so this created a bit of a dilemma to me. How would I know what was happening in the world? But what I found out was that the important stuff got carried word of mouth and if it was of interest to me or the source was questionable, I could do the fact research myself.
Today for some reason unbeknownst to me, I turned on the television, something I almost never do as it is, and let it stay upon the news. The story was about a fight over two very lovely and reasonably small fruit trees that some landscape designers obtained a permission for and planted in the greenspace on the sidewalk in front of their home. But “other” or “another” homeowners on the block did not like the trees, feeling that they did not “go” with the other vegetation already there, and petitioned the city to have to permit retracted and the trees removed. There was virtually no end to the “WTF’s” that came to mind in lieu of happening upon the story. Seriously? This is what’s on the news? And seriously? They are trees. Who the hell has anything against trees?
Turning the television off, my belief in the nonsense of what appears on it reinforced, I started to think. And what I thought was that in this particular situation what probably happened was the tree-hating homeowner doesn’t like the tree-planting homeowner and decided that this was the appropriate venue to make clear their distaste and intolerance. This kind of stuff happens ALL the time. Passive, passive aggressive, and aggressive displays of “I don’t like you”, “I am mad at you”, “you hurt me so now I am getting back at you”, or “someone hurt me either recently or some time in the past either once or many times and I am upset so I am going to take it out on other people any time I can.” These are the people that sit on their horns the second the light has turned green if the car in front of them didn’t peel out. The people that mutter or yell “asshole!” to a bike or a car that came a bit to close to them or their dog while they were crossing the street even though the driver or biker smiled and waved for them to go ahead. The neighbor that makes a really big fuss to everyone in the building about a dryer sheet left in the communal laundry room and the co-worker that sends a nastygram about something left in the office refrigerator.
The first time I realized that some people are just kind-of mean was in high school. My first job was in an independently owned health food store selling all sorts of vitamins and bad tasting (this was the early 90′s) nutritional enhanced bars and drinks. It was in a small Northern California town that was home to many a famous and wealthy hippie. But the owner of this store, completely incongruent with the location and product in my opinion, was a staunch republican and had an autographed photo of George Bush #1 that read “Thanks for all your support” under glass on the front counter. It was not this man however, but his customer that was just one of the most awful people ever. She was angry, rude, condescending, belittling, disgruntled and demanding with every breath she uttered and movement she expressed. No matter how friendly or approachable, whether you were helpful or just left her alone, the woman found a way to make you feel like crap. It seemed quite truly like her purpose in life. To enter out into the world just to make other people feel bad.
Now, as you probably know I am a counselor. And I believe that people ultimately are good and trying to find peace and joy and comfort and are capable of change. And I know that people often find strange ways to release their negative emotions. Sometimes it was a healthy adaptation, a means of self-protection that got taken a little too far. Sometimes they come out loudly and obviously and other times they sneak like smoke through the crack under the door. Sometimes people are able to recognize and acknowledge the impact this has on others, sometimes they feel remorse about it, and sometimes they don’t.
I think it’s important to note here that there is a distinction between general hostility aimed at everyone and an appropriate and assertive response to something that is truly upsetting to you. What I mean is that if you really, really have this thing about dryer sheets and it’s actually extremely important to your mental health that people be mindful of that one thing for you then please, by all means, address it NICELY with the offending neighbor (it will be better received if addressed nicely, trust me on this). We all have pet peeves. Mine is waiting in a long line behind someone who has had TONS of time to decide what they want to order but hasn’t made up their mind by the time it’s their turn and tries to stall by asking several highly specific questions about menu items. I have a hard time being patient and easygoing in this particular case as it is just plain inconsiderate really, but I take deep breaths and try hard. But if it’s not just the dryer sheet but a host of other things that are bothering you and you take it out not just on your neighbor but on your partner, your family, your co-workers, everyone, it is time to check yourself. I’ll never know if she did but I hope to God that that women from my first job got herself to some therapy.
Personally, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. When someone is inappropriately rude or mean to me I bristle and feel hurt or angry for a second but then I talk myself out of it but coming up with all sorts of scenarios about what must be going on in their life or what may have happened just prior to our encounter that might cause them to be feeling so badly that they would be putting so much negative energy out into the world. And sometimes, maybe even most of the time, I think people deserve that. But if the person is a repeat offender I refuse to join in their story and I do my best to help them see it. It’s fairly easy to do this in my professional life because to a certain extent that’s what I am there for and harder to do in my personal life because my opinion is not being asked for. But I have a pretty low tolerance for negativity (not sarcasm, which I LOVE) because unless you are diagnostically and moderately to highly depressed or anxious, there is just no reason for it and it really is within your power to control. And even if you are those things, there is stuff you can do to bring it down a few notches so you can find some relief. While I don’t think people should bottle or hide their feelings, even the negative ones, there are ways that you can express them and move through them that heal rather then just pass along the hurt. You can also think before you act and pick your battles wisely because when you don’t, chances are high you are not going to get what you wanted out of the interaction and it’s just going to reinforce the negative beliefs that got you there in the first place.
I think that the best way though to counteract negativity is with positivity. It sounds corny at worst and obvious at best, I know. But the more love and compassion and joy you put out into the world, the more it grows. For reals. And I totally believe that we all as thinking and feeling animals that influence other thinking and feeling animals are responsible for the promotion of love and the refusal to accept hate. That we all need to be aware and intentional about this stuff. There are plenty of folks out there already that aren’t and they are loud and they are visible. So all we can try to do is increase our population and our visibility so that some day we outnumber them and start to dismantle the culture of greed and fear and anger and ignorance. I’m in. Are you?
Alyssa K. Siegel, MS, LPC, CGAC II, The Dance of Therapy
First published on Alyssa’s counseling blog on October 14, 2011.