To a friend, who asked me a heartfelt question:
You asked if I ever get into a negative spiral, and the answer is, dear god, yes. All the time.
The only reason I have any tiny pearl of wisdom to offer about staying positive or feeling grateful is because these are things I must work hard to maintain. In college, studying personality theories, a teacher gently guided me toward reading more about a certain personality “type”. I reacted strongly, saying, “No! I can’t be that one! It says in the description for that one that it has a tendency toward melancholy, and I WORK REALLY HARD TO BE POSITIVE!” His response: “Have you ever thought that if you’re working really hard at being positive, you might have a tendency for the opposite?” He watched me struggle to reconcile this new possibility and then said these words that changed my whole outlook: “That doesn’t mean you’re not doing a good JOB being positive. There’s room for opposing forces to exist side by side in one coherent person.”
Say it again with me: There is room for opposing forces to exist side by side in one coherent person. We can have our contradictions and still be whole.
I am not alone in my tendency for melancholy, my tendency for cynicism and bitterness to find me too easily and take over the narrative I am telling myself about my own life and my place in it and what’s possible for me.
In fact, we are wired to hold onto negative feedback and recall the details of negative experiences more vividly - it’s a survival thing. I read once that in order to feel like we’ve just had a positive interaction with someone, we need to receive 5-to-1 positive feedback. In order to feel like an interaction was just neutral, the ratio is 3-to-1. Three pieces of positive information for every negative one in order for our brains to process the experience we are having as even a neutral one!
I took that as a personal challenge. Clearly life is not in the general habit of handing out three or four or five good things for every awful one it throws at us; so then it becomes my responsibility to spend enough time dwelling on the good, looking more closely at each thing in my life I am grateful for, to build it up in my mind until it owns as much shelf space as all the frustrating and discouraging and angering things we all have to deal with every damn day.
Sometimes I am good at this. The working hard to be positive. Other times I think all the work I did last year will carry me through this one, and I get swallowed up in my commitments, and suddenly one day I look up and I’m miserable and all I want is to blame everyone and everything, reciting a litany of reasons that the world is unfair and the cards are stacked against me and I have no power over my runaway-train life.
That’s when I have to come back to the work. The daily reflection. The choosing-which-wolf-to-feed. It’s not (usually) as simple as a switch that can be flipped. It’s something I have to keep practicing, like piano, or else I get less nimble. And let me tell you, I still hate it when someone tells me, “Think positive!” as if it is the easy fix for all my problems. Thinking positive does not take the place of empathy and compassion. It isn’t a substitute for sitting with the truth of an emotion and allowing your body the space to feel a thing deeply. Thinking positive is not a thing you just turn on and off, easy as you please. It’s like a novel you are writing, and every day you have to sit down and chip away at a little more of it. We all have our wounds and our traumas and our personal narratives that get in our way. We all have our own unique suitcases of bullshit to wade through. Some days you are lucky to write one page. Some days you have to soothe a hundred little aches before you can write a word.
So be gentle with yourself. Call yourself a hero for sitting down to the task at all. Celebrate every word of your story that you can reclaim from its spiraling descent and tell in a way that acknowledges every small victory you’ve won. Keep rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. And when the next negative spiral threatens to swallow you up, remember you are human, and it’s ok, and we will be learning the same lessons over and over for the rest of our lives, and that’s the beauty of it.