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How to Hear Negativity Without Taking It All In

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She pulled out her white board. In my experience, breakthroughs come when a therapist pulls out a white board. 

Moments before, I’d been unloading my feelings on her. I didn’t expect anything to change; I just knew I needed to get the weight off my chest for a while.

“I love my kids,” I said. “But I can barely handle all of my feelings, much less theirs!”

Our oldest, in particular, had recently started sharing only his negative thoughts with me. He was nine at the time, so most of them were trivial, but to me, they were adding up.

Mom, my ears hurt when I swim… Mom, I don’t like my teacher… Mom, the yogurt in my school lunch was warm by lunchtime… 

He’s almost thirteen now, and we’re still plugging away along the same lines—expect his complaints and wants and needs feel a bit… heavier than they did then. (Not to mention all of the negativity I’m fielding from my other kids!)

Think about how much negativity you take in on a daily basis. And not just from your kids but from, let’s say, a pessimistic co-worker, a critical parent figure in your life, or a Facebook feed that’s filled with polarized views.

It’s 2021, and we’ve only recently made it through a presidential election and a global pandemic. The negativity around us might have reached an all-time high!

But back to my therapist’s office…

My therapist adjusted the white board on her lap and said it represented a continuum. On one side she drew a circle using a dashed line, and on the other side, she drew a circle using a solid line.

Then she drew arrows pointing toward each circle, but only one of the circles (the one made out of a dashed line) was penetrated by the arrows. The arrows pointing at the other circle (the solid one) couldn’t get through.

“You,” she said, “are the dashed circle. We call that ‘enmeshed.’ Everything gets through. You take it alllllll in.”

She added that we also don’t want to be “disengaged,” the solid circle on the opposite side of the white board. That’s too far on the other extreme. Nothing gets in, and it’s an isolating way to live, both for ourselves and the people around us.

So where do we want to be? You guessed it—the happy middle!

She drew a dozen stars right in between the two circles on the board.

If I had to guess, I’d say most women err on the side of being overly permeable—of being the circle made of a dashed line.

We know how our children feel about each of their friends, how our mom friends feel about each other, how our colleagues feel about their jobs, how our spouses like their toast! 

And sometimes what we know—all that information that we’re the keepers of—becomes how we feel.

What we’re looking for, though, is a balance between permeable (or enmeshed, as my therapist called it) and impenetrable (or disengaged). 

So if you need to hear this today, please know—

Not everyone’s opinion needs to rest on your shoulders.

Not every like or dislike needs to be filed away in your memory.

Not every complaint that escapes your child’s lips needs to be fixed by you.

It’s okay to just hear… and release.

3 Affirmations to Help You Hold Negativity at Bay

1.  You are the eye of the storm.

You know how a hurricane can be raging, but deep within is a small circle of stillness? I try to think of myself as the eye of the storm anytime I’m facing something I don’t want to disturb my inner calm.

I am the eye of the storm. That negativity isn’t getting in right now. 

3. You’re not meant to carry what isn’t yours.

This one is especially for the empaths and the highly sensitives among us: You’re not meant to carry what isn’t yours.

You can help shoulder a burden for a while; you can shore up a loved one in their time of need.

But remember that if that burden were meant to be yours, it would be.

There’s a difference between supporting and owning. Take a deep breath, and gently let go of the burdens that aren’t yours to carry.

3. Most complaints are a bid for connection—not a cry for help.

When you can keep yourself from becoming enmeshed—from letting all of those negative feelings inside—you’ll be more able to recognize what’s at play under the surface.

Maybe when your son comes to you with negativity, it’s not a problem for you to solve as much as it is a need for you to simply be there with him. And maybe your daughter can live with the way her door hinges squeak or the way her brother chews at the dinner table, but she can’t thrive without you.

The same goes with the negativity we hear from co-workers, friends, spouses, parents—anyone.

Most complaints are a bid for connection—not a cry for help.

“Mom,” my son said later that night, well after I’d left my therapist’s couch. “Do we have to have to eat this for dinner??”

“Yeah, bud. This is what I made. But tell me about your favorite meal you’ve EVER had. I want to hear all about it.”

I’m curious—Where would you say you naturally fall on the continuum? Do you let it all in like I do?

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