The power of negativity
‘Things aren’t getting any better,’ I whine miserably at the therapist. ‘If anything, they’re getting worse. I can’t sleep. I’m in constant pain. I’m up and down and all over the place. I can’t stay present. I can’t see a way forwards. I can’t stop the flashbacks. I can’t cope. I just … can’t … do it any more …’
My words puff into nothing like thin strands of smoke and I’m frustrated that I can’t communicate the depth of my despair. She’ll just nod slightly and say something that’s intended to be encouraging, and I’ll feel all the shame again of being so defective. I’ll feel the desperate, dank gloom of the week to come. With scrunched-up toes and jittery fingers, I’ll dread coming back next week, only to disappoint her again. I don’t know how much longer I can carry on being such a failure in therapy.
I ache with the bleakness of being me.
We sit quietly for several moments. I wonder, briefly, how she can bear to sit with me in such dismal despondency. And yet when she rebuffs my negativity with her asinine positivity, I feel disconnected and misunderstood. She can’t win. She can’t ever win.
She always takes her time before answering, but today the seconds stretch out like a rope bridge across a canyon and I begin to feel wobbly and faint. Eventually, I risk a glance at her. She’s watching me. Serious. Stern. Maybe a little bit sad, but I can’t tell. I just feel in trouble. Her look sears through me with shame and I bristle at it.
‘I’m so fed up of being me!’ I explode, albeit quietly. My words launch out towards her, like a challenge.
She tips her head slightly to one side, still looking at me.
‘Is this helping you?’ she says, at last.
Is what helping me?! I have no idea what she’s talking about. And I say so.
She pauses again, like she’s trying to bleed the tension out of me. Then carefully, like drops of vanilla into a cake, she says, ‘Is it helping you to be so negative?’
Ouch. My knees clench as if between tonic immobility and the reflex to run. Her disgust at me is pasted all over her face, her words contemptuous, brimful of mockery. How she must hate me, I think, in the tiny gap in my brain where words can still form. Mostly I feel winded and unable to move. I want to shrink back into myself.
Perhaps she catches my reaction and understands what is going on in me better than I do. Because the next thing I know she is leaning forwards, and there is warmth and colour and the hum of human connection. ‘Being negative is a great way to deal with unbearable feelings,’ she is saying. ‘Perhaps it would help if you could just notice what you’re doing here?’
I don’t know which way to turn. Does she hate me, or not? Does she think I’m pathetic, the epitome of failure, or is this a genuine insight? Is she trying to help me, or is this a trap to prove my worthlessness?
Inside, I feel like refracted light, a spectrum of different hues and responses. I genuinely don’t understand who and what she is. Is she good? Is she bad? Is she for me? Is she against me? The confusion grips my airways and I can’t suck enough air into me. I want to disappear.
‘What do you reckon?’ she says, drawing me back towards her, and at last her voice begins to warm my insides a little. ‘Does that resonate at all?’
Think, I tell myself. I’m trying to shake myself out of this terror. I’m so afraid of being rejected by her.
‘I don’t know,’ I say, just so that I’ve said something. ‘I don’t really understand.’
‘Okay,’ she says, kindly – yes, definitely kindly. It might be okay. I don’t think she’s trying to hurt us. ‘What I mean is that sometimes you seem to get stuck in a downward spiral of negative thing. You can’t see anything positive at all. You don’t have any hope that things will get better. It’s as if your entire attention is consumed with everything that’s bad, or might be. And I was wondering if you’d noticed that this is something that happens. Because I think it’s a trauma reaction. And I think it might be something you do unconsciously to try to manage painful feelings. But the problem is that you then believe the negativity, and so it actually makes your experience even more painful.’
My brain feels twisted through ninety degrees. I need to snap it back again. I need things to be the same, not different. I need the world to be what I expect it to be. For the moment, her idea is too much.
‘But things are bad!’ I counter. Does she think that my negativity has no basis in reality? That really I’m having a lovely life, and just misinterpreting everything? There’s a little fizzle of indignation on the inside of me. Again, I feel defensive: maybe this therapist, like so many others in the world, doesn’t actually believe me. I’ve just got the wrong end of the stick. I wasn’t really abused. It wasn’t all that bad. I just took it all the wrong way.
I know at one level that this is the argument I use within myself to minimise the pain of trauma. But I am also, perverseley, resistant to the therapist turning it against me.
‘But I know things are bad!’ she cries, surprised. Her head bobs backwards as if she’s been jabbed on the chin. ‘I don’t doubt for one minute that life is extremely difficult for you,’ she continues. ‘That goes without saying.’
But again the warmth in her voice.
‘You have every right to be miserable, and negative,’ she says. ‘And I think that to a large extent it helps you.’
So what does she want me to do then? Carry on being negative? Or be positive? How can I get this right?
I shush myself. At last, my curiosity is beginning to rise.
‘How does it help me?’
‘You tell me?’
I push my thoughts together, like playdough into a ball. I squeeze my eyes shut to focus them.
‘I’m negative … because then I’m safe,’ I say at last. It takes great effort, but slowly the words are forming. ‘Things are bad, and things are difficult,’ I say. ‘I really don’t know how to cope. I really don’t know if things will get any better. And often it feels like you don’t believe me on that.’
She is about to say something, no doubt to contradict me, but instead beckons me on with her eyes. So I continue, halting, fearful, but intrigued about what I will say next. My words seem to be laid out before me like a trail of breadcrumbs and I don’t know where they will lead.
‘It feels like I have to be negative, to go on about it, to get you to believe me,’ I say. ‘To get you to help me …’ Yes, this is it. This is what I need to say. But there’s more. ‘It’s so frustrating, because so often I don’t feel like you believe me. I feel like you’ll just tell me that it’s okay really, that I’m fine, that I’m braver than I feel and smarter than I think … but I always want to tell you that things are way worse than you imagine. Because you’re not there …’ – my voice is beginning to rise – ‘… You’re not there, in the night-times, when I can’t sleep, when the pain is really bad, when I can’t stop the flashbacks, when I just want to die …’
My voice is a vortex of agony.
She looks down, emotion – some emotion, but I don’t know what – washing across her face. ‘I know,’ she says, and her voice is cracking slightly. Maybe she just needs to clear her throat. Or maybe she is genuinely moved. I don’t know which. But, just for a moment, I feel understood.
‘So it feels like, if I could just get you to understand how hard things are, I wouldn’t have to be so negative …’ I say. I don’t want it to sound like an accusation. Instead, it’s a plea.
She nods, intense and connected. I feel a surge of understanding.
‘Okay,’ she says, and I believe her. ‘And how else does it make you feel safe?’
For a moment I don’t understand her, and then I remember that she’s echoing my words. How does being negative help me feel safe? My thought is constipated and dry. I push hard on it.
‘Because …’ I am struck by a sudden terror, as if it’s the most dangerous thing in the world to speak, to reveal shameful secrets. ‘Because …. because then I won’t be disappointed,’ I say. ‘You’re always talking about how much better things can be. How things can improve. How I can learn to manage my flashbacks, and my switching, and the body memories, and the pain. And I want to believe you. But it feels such a long way off … and I don’t know if I can. I don’t know if I can. I believe what you’re saying, about developing skills to manage all these things, that I just need to learn how. But I don’t know if I can. That’s all. So if I’m negative … It’s not just because I don’t believe that things can get better … because actually sometimes I do …’
I know I’m getting tangled up in my own contradictions, but I press ahead, hoping for clarity.
‘It’s just that if I agree with you, that things can get better … If I’m positive …’ – I twist myself from side to side, the agony of it contorting my body shape – ‘… then what if it all goes wrong? Where’s the hope then? If I put all my eggs in one basket … if things don’t get better but I’ve believed they will …’
The sudden horror of hopelessness, of the fear I’ve been holding, ripples through me and I feel aghast, desperate, terrified.
She nods and moves towards me again. It’s like she’s holding onto me, pulling me back from the edge.
‘I get that,’ she says. ‘You’re afraid of not having any hope left at all. Whereas if you can keep a bit of hope in reserve, and not admit to it, then you’ve got a backup plan. So it feels safer not to admit to that hope, like having a secret savings account for a rainy day.’
Yes. Exactly that.
And suddenly more words come, like unblocking the loo.
‘If I’m positive, then you can take that away. You can mock me. You can tell me I’m being stupid. Because what right have I got to be positive about the future, when so many bad things have happened in the past? It feels safer to be negative. It feels more realistic. And if I’m positive, and it doesn’t work out, then you’ll pounce on me …’
She shifts in her seat, as if once more to contradict me, but holds herself. I press on. I don’t know what I’m going to say next, and I just need the words to birth themselves.
‘You’ll tell me how stupid I was for believing. Like as a child, when bad stuff was happening,’ I say, and pain rushes upon me like a blowtorch of emotion. ‘You hope, and you hope, and you hope that it’ll stop. You hope that things will get better. And they don’t. They don’t. They just don’t. They keep happening. The shit keeps happening. Night after night after night after night. And so you feel so stupid, for hoping. And it feels like that’s part of their power over you, that they get you to hope. It’s another way they hurt you. Because they’re abusing you, and then they stop and it’s over for that day, or for that night. They choose to stop. They choose to stop. And you can’t do a thing about it. You can’t say when it starts, and when it stops. All you have is your hope. And they crush it. Again and again and again … Because they keep coming back.’
The room has gone dark around me, and the therapist a long way away. It’s raw and uncomfortable and a place of deep sorrow.
‘So if you don’t hope, they can’t hurt you. You get used to it instead. You expect bad stuff to happen, because it always does. And then you’re not caught out. You’re not stupid …’ – I spit this out with all the contempt it deserves – ‘… You’re not lying there, a stupid, pathetic, defenceless little child stupidly – stupidly – hoping that it won’t happen. Unprepared. Powerless. Instead, you’re ready. You know that bad stuff is going to happen, and you’re waiting for it. And that’s what it feels like now …’ – I’m angry and sore all at the same time and I don’t know what to do with myself except to go blank in my head and pretend the therapist isn’t here – ‘… when you want me to be positive. It doesn’t feel safe. It feels like I won’t be ready to deal with the bad stuff. It feels like you’re asking me to let down my guard. It feels naive and simplistic and stupid …’ – that word again – ‘… and it feels like you obviously don’t get it, that you’re willing to be so lazy and unready and offguard as to believe that the shit isn’t coming …’
I am spent. The words sit poisonously between us, accusing her, accusing me, fizzing with their bitterness and rage, like fajitas spitting in a pan. I hold myself taut, ready for her to retaliate, or tell me off.
But we just sit. And the anger cools into sadness. She is breathing with me, matching me, dejected and disconsolate.
‘Yes,’ she says at last. Her voice is like buttercream icing. I want to sink into it. I don’t know how, but I feel attuned to. I feel understood. I feel accepted. The rage ebbs within me. I have said it, and there are no recriminations.
‘Yes,’ she says again, full of astute sadness. ‘You were right to be negative. You were right to prepare for the worst. You did the best thing you could to protect yourself. Being negative, expecting bad things, helped you back then. It was the best thing you could do at the time to survive.’
I twist uncomfortably on the inside. It doesn’t feel right, not to be negative about being negative. But I feel validated. I want to find words again to tell her – again – how important it was that I didn’t have hope. I want to tell her – again – how I couldn’t bear to play their game of willing them to stop. I want to tell her about the long nights of watchfulness, the thudding of my heartbeat in the silence, watching through the grey-green light for the twisting of the doorknob, waiting for it to start. I want to tell her of the battle within myself all those nights of not hoping. I want to tell her of the power of negativity. But I have no more words for now.
Tears come out of nowhere and dribble down my nose. I am disinclined to sniff them away so they fall wetly into my lap.
‘It was the most painful thing in the world to hope,’ I say at last, my words slipping through unmoving lips. ‘And it feels like the most painful thing now too …’
Heaviness and silence fall between us, like the air is humid with sadness.
‘I know,’ she says.
I’m expecting her now to pivot. I’m expecting her now to turn the negative into positive. I’m expecting the ‘that was then, but this is now …’ routine. But it doesn’t come. She just sits with me in the weight of this moment and I allow it to sink down, deep beneath my rage.
‘I can’t afford to be positive,’ I say. ‘It’s too risky. It’s the only thing I can control. To not hope. But I hate it too. I hate being negative.’ I don’t mean to be the one who pivots, but emotions have motion and something is stirring from the attunement of the moment and I know I’m not done yet. I need to finish this.
‘It feels powerful to be hopeless,’ I say, surprising myself. ‘It’s something I can control. You’re banging on all the time about hope, about things getting better, but that’s your hope …’ – I don’t mean to sound combative, and maybe my voice is too worn to show it – ‘… and I need to find my own. I need it to be safe to hope. I need it to be something that no-one can take away. I need it to be my own choice. It can’t be imposed upon me. I can’t be positive because I’m supposed to be, to be a good girl. I’ve got to be positive because it’s true.’
A long pause, then, ‘Is it true?’ she asks.
At last I feel space in my chest to breathe, and my lungs expand outwards along with my thoughts.
‘Maybe,’ I say, carefully. ‘Maybe. Because things are different now. Back then, I was a child, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about any of it. I couldn’t go and live anywhere else. I couldn’t even unlock the front door or run away. I couldn’t have survived on my own. Nowadays I’m an adult. I live in my own house. My abusers don’t live with me. I can lock the front door, and they can’t get in. If they tried to, I could phone the police. I have allies. I have people who would help me. So I’m not entirely helpless, however much I feel I am.’
My curiosity is mounting. This insight is fresh, like morning dew.
‘So the abuse isn’t inevitable. It was, when I was a child. I was completely powerless to do anything about it. But it has stopped now, actually. It’s been years since they abused me. I am safe.’ I pause for a moment, and acknowledge this. It is an incredible thing. I know it’s not true for everyone, for people who still live with their abusers. But it is true for me. And I need to honour that.
‘So maybe it’s safe to hope a little now,’ I continue. My head tilts away to one side, as if I’m looking at the underbelly of this hope idea and I need to get a closer look. I feel oblivious, for the moment, to the presence of the therapist, and so safe to think out loud. ‘And maybe, actually, I’d like to …’ This idea feels a little daunting, but also compelling. ‘Because …’ I don’t know if I can say this. ‘Because … because …’ I sigh. Go for it. ‘Because I hate being so negative,’ I admit, finally. ‘I hate it. I hate how it makes me feel – morose and powerless. I hate how it makes me look. I hate how it narrows everything down into misery and helplessness. That’s not who I want to be any more.’
A line from the Barnum musical floats bizarrely into my mind, a memory from adolescence. ‘I want rosy possibilities.’
I want to allow myself to smile at the image of Michael Crawford as the showman, cheeky and humourful: the dreamer. It is an incongruous moment in my mind, and the therapist sits oblivious to this train of thought and the faint beam it is drawing on my lips. Rosy possibilities.
I shift myself in my chair, moving myself upright. I make myself conscious of her, and settle back into myself in the room. I look square at her.
‘Negativity is powerful,’ I say, shearing into her with direct eye contact. I won’t let this point go. But I will also build on it. ‘But so is positivity. I guess I need to decide which is most effective for me right now, to move forwards.’
She inhales deeply, like she’s sniffing in this shift in my thinking, and then she nods.
‘You don’t need to let go of negativity,’ she says. ‘You can use it, if it helps you. Just be conscious of whether it is actually helping. And make that choice, rather than doing it as a habit.’
Yes. That’s it. It’s my choice. I am not the helpless victim of negativity or positivity, pushed around them, under their control. They are tools that I can use for my own purposes. I am the master, and they are my slaves. And right now, as the session draws to a close, hope shimmies softly in my bowels. I can be positive, if I want to be. But I can also hold onto the negativity, for when it’s needed. It’s not all or nothing. It’s the right tool for the job.
‘The power of negativity …’ I say, folding the idea into a tidy pocket in my mind, ‘is my power. I can use it if it helps. And I can also choose not to use it if it doesn’t help. I can feel negative, to protect myself and keep myself safe. But that doesn’t mean to say that things are negative, and will always be so … because things are different now. I’m not a child any more.’
‘No,’ says the therapist, unsmiling but happy. ‘No. You’re not. You have the power now.’
As I go to leave, a sudden panic grips me. I need to check things out again, just once more. ‘But things are really difficult for me,’ I say, not looking at her. The struggle of the upcoming week looms large over me and I need to acknowledge its shadow. ‘They don’t stop being difficult just because I choose not to be negative,’ I say.
‘I know,’ she says simply, and it is enough that she knows. She has heard me. She will help.