“Woah, look at the gut on her!”
“He’s a total dick.”
“What’s his game?”
“Nothing ever goes right for me.”
“Everyone’s on my case, I wish they’d leave me alone.”
Judgement, cynicism, black-cloud-over-the-headism. All features of a negative mindset, all so easy to succumb to.
It might start out as a comment or a thought here or there, but over time it can grow into a whole way of being, a whole way of thinking, of viewing the world. Where all that can be seen is the bad, where cynicism dulls our sight, our emotions and robs us of our ability to see the good, the hopeful, the potential. And as negativity makes itself at home, real happiness slips out the back door.
There is no shortage of fuel for negativity. Doom and gloom on the news, in the newspapers, the flippant moans and groans on social media, the painful heartless dissection of celebrities – ‘oooh hasn’t she got fat’, ‘he’s useless, hasn’t scored all season’. Culturally, in the main, we do love to criticise, to judge, to pull apart rather than encourage, empathise and build up. And it’s contagious; negativity breeds negativity. You only need to witness the fervour in a ‘bitching session’ to see its contagious power.
Our teens are immersed in this culture as much as we are, arguably more so. At a time when their brains are undergoing significant changes, where they are trying to find out who they are, experimenting successfully and unsuccessfully with different ways of being, of behaving, of interacting with peers and adults, the added toxicity of a negative mindset can be devastating. Going through the emotional and psychological rollercoaster of adolescence is confusing and carries with it an inherent vulnerability as it is. The problem is that a negative view of the world ultimately affects their view of themselves and how they relate to others.
If we view the world with cynicism, looking for the bad rather than the good, looking to destroy rather than build up, judging rather than encouraging, an inevitable comparison has occurred. We have either placed ourselves above others and become prideful or we get insecure about ourselves. (Sometimes a combination of the two occurs, where insecurity is hidden beneath pride). With the former we think we are better than others and we can become cold and heartless. We focus on others’ character flaws rather than endearing attractive positive qualities. We become hard.
The insecurity comes from being so comfortable with the negative judging process that we start to do it to ourselves. Before we know it we have turned the negativity inwards. Not an honest reflection with the intention of improving ourselves which we all need, but a negative destructive self-annihilation, a nit-picking of our bodies, minds and souls.
For teens this becomes, ‘Am I too fat? Too thin? Am I ugly? Too scrawny? Am I too clever? Too stupid? Do I not have enough self-control? Am I a control freak? Am I loveable? Am I too sensitive? Too tough? Am I wearing the right clothes? Do I have the right friends? Am I a freak? Is my family a freak show? Am I too loud? Am I too quiet? Am I just plain bad? Am I too much of a goody-two-shoes? Am I boring? Am I popular enough?’. The incessant questioning, the incessant condemnation. Yes, teens will always questions themselves to an extent, even the most well-adjusted ones, but it is when the thought patterns become constantly negative that real problems occur.
Teen self-image is a very delicate thing before you start adding in the effects of a negative mindset. Add it to the mix and you can end up with self-esteem erosion and ultimately relationship erosion. They can be so busy judging and condemning themselves that they feel incredibly vulnerable. So they start to build defensive walls, protecting themselves from others. The depth and height of these walls will vary depending on individual circumstances. For those whose negative view of themselves comes with regular reinforcement from significant others, where overly critical, negative, even abusive voices add volume to the negative voice inside themselves, the depth and height of those walls can be immense.
They won’t let anyone in, and they won’t reach out. They will try to survive behind the walls on their own, alone with their self-hatred. On the face of it they may be socialising, getting on with friends. But the reality is that they have their inner selves, hidden away behind those walls with no thought of sharing, with connecting with someone who can give them the perspective, the balance they so desperately need.
And atop their defensive walls are a vast army of lookouts, constantly scanning the horizon for future trouble that could compromise those walls. For the most disengaged teens, life has often taught them to expect bad things rather than good so they learn to actively look for the negatives as a defence mechanism. If you go looking for the bad on the horizon then you’ve got enough time to put your armour on.
Problem is that the negative mindset skews their vision and they see danger where there is none. So that worker who seems really nice, she probably doesn’t really care, she’ll only let me down like all the other ones, so I’ll send off arrows of insults and see if she retreats.
Or that amazing opportunity on the horizon that my worker sorted for me, that could be the start of something new and exciting for me, that could change a lot in my life for the better, as much as I want to do it, there’s no point in that. I’m useless, I keep stuffing things up, that’s what my Mum says, so of course I’ll stuff that up too. So I’ll add more layers of stone to my wall and hide in my castle of apathy. If I don’t try I can’t stuff it up. I’ll just hide behind my wall.
And what does Dad think he’s doing, coming round to see if I want to go on holiday with him? Probably just wants me to look after my little step-brother doesn’t he? I’ll show him what I think with my canonball.
Negativity as Relationship Breaker
At its core, a negative mindset robs teens (and us) of real meaningful relationship with others. We can be so busy putting our armour on, protecting ourselves from perceived negativity that we forget about the positives or just fail to notice. It also stops us from engaging with new people, and it can cause us to disengage from people we have previously had relationships with.
This is the relationship corrosion that I have seen kick in between teens and their parents or carers and even workers so often, particularly when there are serious behavioural issues at play. They are at loggerheads, both constantly perceiving everything the other says or does in the most negative way possible. Real effort or real attempts at change are missed as all the other can see is the negatives that have gone before. In essence, hearts have become hardened. They forget why they love or care for each other, or times when they even liked each other. And in amongst all the crossfire they fundamentally miss each other, the person they once knew. They engage in warfare with a distorted view of the other person, a hardened view of the other person. There is no flex here, no compromise, no attempt at understanding, no connection; the humanness is lost.
Gratitude Goggles: Perspective Changers
So how can we help our teens break out of the headlock of negativity? How can we help them to regain a more balanced perspective of life, themselves and others?
Our teens (along with us) need to pop their gratitude goggles on. When stuck in a negative mindset we have to force ourselves to think more positively, to see the positives, to push negativity aside.
See the good things in life
Committing to daily finding five things to be grateful for and writing them down or pictorially expressing them is a good starting point. Even those teens in the most dire social circumstances can usually find five. They may be grateful for their friends, the fact that they actually had some dinner last night, that their Gran lives close by, that Dad didn’t get drunk last night, that the sun is shining so they won’t get wet walking to wherever they need to walk to. The cloud hanging over their heads lightens and lifts. And each day it gets easier to see the good as they get more practise.
And even when circumstances continue to be difficult their perspective changes. Rather than life seeming to be all about the negatives, the abuse, the neglect, the poverty, glimmers of light shine through that they can grasp onto to spur them on, to get through and hopefully out the other side. This is the difference between a teen that gets on despite their circumstances rather than is held back in defeat by them.
They judge and condemn themselves and others less. They start to see the good, what they can work with, identifying strengths, potential, doors open rather than closed. And most importantly they start to see who they can work with to get where they need to go in life. Rather than people automatically being viewed with suspicion they are viewed as potential sources of help. In finding human connection the walls begin to tumble and the armour comes off.
See the good things in themselves
As they get used to the idea of wearing gratitude goggles and seeing the good in their lives in general, they can then begin to get to a place of being able to see the positives within themselves. Encouraging them to regularly think of things that they like in themselves helps them them to shake off the negative self-talk and to see themselves in a more balanced way.
They will hopefully get to a point where some things that they used to see as being a negative, are actually positives for them or can at least be viewed with a positive spin. Like moving from thinking that their quietness was dorky, to realising that they take in a lot, think a lot which is why they are quieter and that’s okay. They don’t need to drink a bottle of vodka to become a louder person that is not who they really are.
See the good things in others
Training themselves to not automatically look for negative motivations and character flaws in others is another area where a more positive outlook is required. If they are not constantly looking for the negative then they open themselves up to the positive influence of others, rather than shutting themselves off completely in fear of the negatives they think they can see. They will feel more confident in engaging with new people.
Wearing gratitude goggles can have a profound effect in rebuilding broken relationships also. In my experience, gratitude for what is rather than constantly focussing on what isn’t is what has lain at the heart of many improved, if not healed relationships, particularly between teens and their parents or carers. The simple act of each committing to finding one thing a day that they are grateful for in the other person helps to break down the walls, brings the humanness back into the relationship.
Often they will need to look to the past to find things, like ‘I love the way she made me laugh’, or ‘I loved the way we used to watch a movie on Friday night’. It often results in mutual nostalgia and they start to look for ways to get back to those feelings, maybe in different ways, but back to better interactions. So rather than being stuck in hostility, something different is remembered and becomes possible again.
With this gratitude practice, each other’s current actions are better perceived and hostility lessens. Time is made to listen. Communication and clarification become the default rather than knee-jerk reactions, shouting, slammed doors and misunderstanding. The focus shifts. The relationship with that person gradually shifts focus onto the good rather than just the irritations. A direct result of this is that each becomes more interested in considering or meeting the needs of the other. Human remeets human. Positivity breeds understanding and positive action.
Determined Regular Goggle Wearing
Shifting a negative mindset and replacing it with a positive one is a difficult process. To break free from it requires determined action. Bad habits and their negative consequences need to be replaced with good ones in a structured, regular way if the change is going to stick.
Putting gratitude goggles on every day will seem extremely weird at first to our teens, and possibly their parents or carers. But if we wear them ourselves, help them put on their own pair and help them to keep putting them on, they will soon put them on for themselves without thinking. Barriers to engagement will begin to fall, barriers to relationship will tumble and a better, more engaged, hope filled life will begin to be built from the rubble.