The power of negativity

by | 7 February 2019 | Posts | 14 comments

‘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.’

Does it?

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.

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14 Comments

  1. Thank you

    Reply
  2. Tears are threatening and there is a sob caught in my throat.

    Reading this, I am feeling a connection, I am not alone in my confusion, disillusion and feared madness.

    Maybe if I can survive another day, another week…..maybe then I can begin to hope. I am scared to hope. Death feels more comforting in my exhaustion…safer even than taking a risk on life.

    I hear my own voice, my own inner child, as well as the parts of me working with her to recover …..5 years and counting….and waiting from the day my mind could no longer contain my trauma.

    Hoping a little…..then crushing that hope with my fear…..it invades me , sneaks up on me too ……I keep trying to explain to professionals how staying small, feeling in control of my disordered eating is keeping me safe……safe from being hurt by others if I “let go”…..safe from the dark intrusive thoughts telling me there is no hope, that I am useless, unloved, worthless and pathetic. Its all too hard. They would all be better off without me and I would no longer have to feel the shame of failing in my recovery each time I am overwhelmed with a setback.
    And I am pretty good at keeping myself safe this way…..it is something where I have the power.

    Why does my mind allow the terror and darkness to arrive unnanounced in the middle of a perfectly ordinary day and to completely overwhelm me in the middle if the night??? Why does it feel safer to self destruct than let others destroy me if I take a chance and trust them, if I allow myself to hope that my future will be ok?

    So this post resounds with me.
    Touches me.

    Negativity….feels soul destroying some days…..but on other days, sometimes it’s the only thing that honours the awfulness of what happened to “little me”, the only thing that keeps me safe….because those tired of waiting for my recovery aren’t watchful, those who lack understanding are irritated and impatient and might hurt me….and if I let my guard down and hope …and live…..I might not be safe from them and myself.

    I think the hardest thing is that the parts of me that have made steps forward…acknowledged the courage it has taken, who sometimes do have hope…are exhausted from the constant battle with the other parts……who tremble with fear that even the most ordinary day, could turn out to be devastating, and sinister.

    If there are other souls who have the same feelings as me …then at least I am not alone in my despair….someone else is out there who knows how breaking and breaking over and again leaves us fragile ….there is positivity in knowing that.

    Thank you

    Reply
    • I totally understand how you feel Lola. You are not alone

      Reply
    • you are definitely not alone. thank you for sharing your thoughts & reassuring me that I am not alone too. xxx

      Reply
    • Absolutely not alone.

      If we stay ten steps ahead, no one can hurt us. If we are awful to ourselves, no one can hurt us as much as we hurt ourselves. If we only have negativity, things can’t get worse! Self-protection feels bizarre at times.

      Reply
  3. Right now I’m stuck. It’s safer. I feel exactly what you have written. I’m sure my therapist is disappointed in me. But I’m stuck and it sucks but it’s safer than feeling and hoping.

    Reply
  4. Thank you so much for your retelling of therapy.
    This really helps understand the complexity of coping strategies at their very best

    Reply
  5. Aaaaghh I wish we could all have positive experiences in therapy. This is all so familiar, in terms of your feelings, expressions, beliefs…but the therapist is vastly different. At just under a year the reaction I get is that I’m not ever going to get better, nothing will improve, and they do not recommend I have any more therapy. Tears pouring down my face, I know I’ve tried to cling on to a hope that this isn’t true and to have it crushed is so cruel. I try to be brave and just contain the upset but can’t. So I’m weak and have failed. Massively. And back on my own as that was the end of that therapy. I couldn’t do any more anyway. Every single ‘professional‘ I’ve ever come across has made me worse. I don’t understand why they all want to be so cruel. Thank you Carolyn for giving us these insights to read so we can try to apply them to ourselves too.

    Reply
  6. I can relate to some of this. Feeling crushed by more shame whenever I think in a session how moany and whiny I must come across, yet at the same time feeling I so desperately have to explain it, (even though there never feels any words and I never feel I convey the pain), because I don’t feel it’s validated or comprehended by the other person.
    For me, I desperately seek a listener, to listen, comprehend, validate with genuine empathy so then I can start to listen, comprehend and validate everything that happened to myself. To piece together a whole singular true self.
    One can’t happen without the other. Well, it’s very hard I think.

    Reply
  7. Wonderful, thank you.

    Reply
  8. Just off the phone after a session – and this makes a connection. How come the counsellor doesn’t get it or worse does get it, but doesn’t share it?

    Reply
  9. Your capacity to help therapists understand the depth and truth of the experience of the client in a new and enlightening way is awe-inspiring. Thank you.

    Reply
    • I whole-heartedly agree. Raw insightful authenticity is the most effective teacher for those who are therapists.
      Carolyn, thank you.

      Reply
  10. Yes, yes, yes……these are the insights that allow me to make little shifts inside…..its such a relief to learn that these strategies actually make sense and WERE functional AT THE TIME.. ..and I am not just defective…..and that now I am free to change them…slowly, bit by bit its happening..
    And like many others I get these insights from you Carolyn, sadly not the therapist, so its SO IMPORTANT…and powerful.
    It breaks my heart to read them though……thank you so much for sharing.

    Reply

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