More than a few words about negativity

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Ballerina figurine at Tomorrow’s Antiques in New Market, Md. Note: I chose photos that make me happy to counter the post’s focus on negativity.

Have you ever gotten together with co-workers for lunch or happy hour, and you spend most of your time griping about work? If this has happened to you more than once, did someone eventually say, “Let’s try not to talk about work this time,” and then you all tried but failed?

Venting is necessary, even healthy, to a degree, but once it gains traction, it can be hard to put on the brakes. Negativity in its many forms can be both contagious and addictive.

So, in addition to exploring new activities, I am trying to be more positive and more at peace with myself and the world. While I like to think that I’m a mostly cheerful person, sometimes I find it difficult not to dwell on what’s wrong. I am well-acquainted with overreacting, sulking, and bitching.

The evening before I launched this blog, I agreed to go out to dinner when I didn’t really want to. I had to run an errand after work, and it ended up being more challenging than expected. By the time we were out to dinner, I was grumpy and making the experience unpleasant for everyone.

This situation was within my control: I could have declined the dinner and just explained that I wasn’t up for it. Or, I could have committed to not punishing my dinner companions for what was my decision to go out. Also, I could have put the errand behind me—it wasn’t traumatic after all, just annoying—and focused on having a nice time. I did not do these things.

And then I heard myself being super cranky, so I took a deep breath and tried to change my attitude. But not before making a few excuses to justify my behavior.

“Cherish” bird placed in the flower box by the previous owners of our home.

Negativity comes in a number of varieties, all of which I have been guilty of at some point, and I’m sure you’ll relate to at least a few. I think calling each one of them out will be helpful in dampening them.

One type I’m particularly familiar with is “woe is me.” You know this one: “Why did I get in THIS line—it’s taking so long.” “I can’t believe it had to rain on today of all days.”

Often, we let the circumstances get us down even more by concluding that a fleeting bad event is actually a sign of something ingrained and ongoing. Usually we blame ourselves: “I always choose the slowest line.” Or we blame fate: “Every time I plan something fun, bad weather ruins it.”

A close relation to “woe is me” is “nobody loves me/everyone’s a jerk.” If we’ve been waiting a couple days for a call or text back from a parent, child, friend, or date, we might infer that we just aren’t endearing enough to get a speedy reply, or maybe the other person is selfish and thoughtless. We skip right past the fact that the other person might be busy, and instead go straight for the interpretation that contains the most drama.

Then there’s the martyr complex—similar to the above, but with an extra dash of righteousness. “I work all day, and then I do the cooking, and the dishes, and put away the laundry, and no one appreciates it.”  “I worked so hard on that project. I did more than anyone else, and people barely noticed.”

Intense self-criticism can be a particularly brutal strain of negativity: “I’m so fat,” “I’m so ugly,” “I’m so stupid” — repeated on an endless loop. Talk about soul-crushing!

One brand of negativity that I’ve already worked hard to scrub from my brain is obsessive worrying, particularly about something you either have little-to-no control over or don’t plan to do anything about. I used to lie awake many a night pressing on my throat, convinced I had cancer. Any slight shift in my physical condition was a sign of a major illness. I also worry (still, though less so) about car and plane accidents and other spontaneous ways of dying. Constant worry can consume you, making your life downright depressing. And it can keep you from doing things you really want to do.

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Stop sign and kites in Brunswick, Md.

Negativity also comes in several deliciously judgy flavors aimed at others. There’s gossip, spite, bullying, and “Oh. My. God. Becky.” (Hat tip to Sir Mixalot.)

If you don’t know where I’m going with that last one, it’s picking apart someone (typically a stranger, and not to their face, so it seems ok) for their clothes, their hair, their weight…whatever. Many of us do this without even thinking; it’s a bad habit that can be hard to break.

Another off-putting tendency is being overly critical of every little thing someone close to you (usually a partner, parent, or child) does that isn’t up to your standards. My husband can tell you that I have lots of practice with this form. Most of the time it’s little stuff, like how to chop a vegetable or hang up shirts or clean the counter. Sometimes it’s over something more important—but either way the damage arises in the frequency and the delivery.

Not long ago both my husband and I were working from home, and I was participating in an online conference call. During a break in the call due to technical difficulties, I turned to my husband to grumble about his handling of a financial issue. Apparently my laptop microphone picked up and carried my voice to others on the call, and my boss had to remotely mute my microphone.

Not only was this excruciatingly embarrassing, but the experience forced me to think about how I was speaking to someone I love.

Last on my list is disagreeing just for the heck of it. I once spent a long weekend with a group of people who were highly skilled in this irritating practice. One person would say, “I think it’s supposed to be really cold out today, so let’s not forget to wear our winter coats,” and another person would have to say, “Oh, I think tomorrow is supposed to be the cold day. Today should be fine.” And so on, and so on, and so on.

Now, a variety of opinions is what makes the world go ’round. But sometimes people rely on reflexive disagreement as a form of conversation, and it can get old fast.

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“You are My Sunshine” mural by Jeffrey Sincich on the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Fl.

To be clear: I am not suggesting that you or I should just shut up and ignore real problems. Human nature is inclined, thankfully, toward identifying faults—things that are not working, injustices, cracks in the system. This is a good thing. But even then, you eventually have to shift from the problem to the solution and not get mired in complaining.

So, let’s move on to my commitment to nurturing positivity and serenity.

My current To Do list includes:

• Get over small indignities and annoyances faster

• Find the positive in situations

• Give people a break

• Give myself a break

• Compliment others

• Be thankful for what I have

• Aim to be kind and understanding

• Appreciate the beauty, humor, and serendipity in life

• Give myself permission to relax

• Research more about embracing happiness, like reading more from author Gretchen Rubin, who says: “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

I will start right now by saying how grateful I am to be able to create and promote this blog, and how proud I am that I wrote my second blog post in less than a week. Thanks for reading this, and thanks for being the fabulously unique person that you are!

Upcoming blog topics:

A work in progress, still and always


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Traffic sign in St. Petersburg, Fl.

When I first registered the web address for this blog, I was downright giddy. Finally, I was going to build a creative outlet for myself. I sat on my bed pecking away at my laptop on a Friday night, hammering out my mission statement, which would eventually evolve into my About page.

Dang, I was excited! I couldn’t wait to share how I was turning over a new leaf in life. Not only that, but this blog would hold my feet to the fire so I would have no choice but to maintain my momentum.

So much was going on: I took an email creative coaching course, which in addition to inspiring my blog development also encouraged me to meditate for the first time in decades.

After many years of thinking it might be fun, I was actually taking drum lessons. Every other Wednesday night after work I would sit at a drum set in my teacher’s basement feeling self-conscious but trying my best to be sweetly patient with myself.

I was determined that when opportunities or ideas presented themselves, I would no longer look the other way—I would jump right in. This would include all kinds of things, from the simple and brief to the more demanding and long-term.

As soon as I saw a post on my community Facebook page, I signed up for a Saturday morning knife skills cooking class.

After several years of seeing a hot air balloon floating around our area, I contacted the local guy who pilots the balloon, asking if I could come photograph one of his launches. What an experience! I’m sure actually going up in the balloon is even more incredible, but that’s going to require a bit more guts (and money) on my part.

Next up, I was going to get back into practicing yoga. And I visited a rock climbing gym that was near my office and inquired about classes for beginners.

It was at this point that things began to fall apart. A nagging thumb injury flared up and made drumming unwise. Yoga and rock climbing were put on hold before they even got started.

In addition to my physical limbo, I seemed to be placing myself in a mental limbo. I would write and re-write the aforementioned About page over and over, clearly putting off drafting my first actual post.

I started to feel like a fraud: How could I launch my blog when I was in such a funk? What kind of example would I be? I was wallowing, and it wasn’t pretty.

But as I thought about it, I realized that this situation is basically what this blog is all about—hesitating, getting stuck, questioning yourself. And then taking a deep breath and finding a way out, a way up.

Walking by Lake Linganore in New Market, Md.

The day after July fourth I stopped letting my thumb get the best of me, and I started a new effort to become a morning person—the kind of person who gets up early to exercise. The kind of person I am not.

Much has been written recently about the ability to change your behavior. I’ve read that you can create a new habit in 21 days, or possibly 30 days—some manageable, magic-sounding increment of time.

It’s been more than a month now, and I’ve been getting up earlier about three, four, sometimes even five mornings a week to take a walk. The trees and flowers smell incredible at that hour. The dog walkers are out. The construction workers are arriving at their sites. The hills in my neighborhood are a challenge and it feels great to move—to literally step my way out of the hole into which I was sliding.

So, here’s to making this new routine stick. And here’s to launching a blog even when you aren’t feeling on top of the world. In the words of author Elizabeth Gilbert, whose recent book Big Magic inspired me to finally start this blog, “You are allowed to be both a masterpiece and a work in progress simultaneously.”

Progress is the key word. Even, and especially, when you’re challenged.

For more on the inspiration behind Bittersweet Nugget, check out About this blog and the Sources of inspiration page. 

Upcoming blog topics: