When I was 18 years old, just out of high school, I did something kind of remarkable.
Feeling freed from what felt at times to me then like a social cesspool, I shook out my feathers and decided on what I recognize now as a deep emotional cleansing period. I decided that I was going to stop speaking ill of other people. I figured it would get the ball rolling to heal my mind from the trauma of over a decade of ubiquitous, nasty gossip. I had become so incredibly bored by the conversational topic of how other people aren’t doing things right in one way or another. While in the system there was simply no escape from that kind of social environment, but now the world was my oyster, and I wanted to prime myself for the kind of world I wanted to engage with.
So I did. Cold turkey, I stopped saying anything bad about others. I remember this clearly. I remember stopping mid-sentence many times. Swallowing a useless, scathing remark again and again. For the pure habit-breaking power of it, I didn’t allow myself “compassionate” or passive-aggressive critiques, either. No, “I love her dearly, and I know she’s trying her best, but...” It was positive, neutral, or nothing at all for a while, and surprisingly soon an effortless positivity became easier and easier to embody. And something really amazing happened.
I stopped thinking ill of others.
Then, I extended the kindness to myself. I refused to say anything negative about myself. And soon enough I stopped thinking negatively about myself. This is almost unfathomable to me now.
Eventually and pretty naturally, I wasn’t even saying anything bad about irritating or frustrating situations, nor thinking it. Bad traffic stopped bothering me, inconsiderate actions. I had to stop listening to the news, but this was also a very productive and peace-enhancing change.
It took me years to really reflect on this, to acknowledge the feat I accomplished then, with such minimal effort. But now I feel astounded at my teenage self. What a triumph! What strength of will! What flexibility and thoughtfulness!
So what happened? Well, somewhat unfortunately, I went into cosmetology school. Unlike the university experience that I would later have, that environment was yet another relatively small and close-knit group with plenty of room for not minding your own business. In hindsight I can see that this was a particularly cutting circle of people (no pun intended.) After about 6 months of one of the most mentally-well periods of my life, I found myself wrapped up in the drama of other’s lives again due to exposure (this was a 9-5 school, M-F), and I was never able to regain that immeasurably valuable state of mind.
Well, maybe it’s time.
I don’t think that I’m a particularly mean spirited or gossipy person, by any means. But, I do get very frustrated by others, myself, and external situations. I regularly feel critical, envious, miserable, and even occasionally righteous. But I want to lift others up, always. I want to provide light and space. And I want to stop being so damned hard on myself, too. I’d like to be my own friend. From experience now I know how this kind of mindset can develop from external restrictions, such as starting with speech in order to influence thoughts and feelings, and that it’s not an impossible task.
I think, also, that I can achieve this without condemning or suppressing negative emotions, or disallowing my own opinions. The reason I believe this is because I remember the phenomenon of not even having the negative thought to express after a while. It wasn’t like I would continue to think cynically and just slap a smile over it, it’s that in the very beginning I would just neglect to express the cynical thought and soon it actually evaporated. I didn’t build up resentment or rage during this time, in fact I never felt lighter in regard to others.
I don’t expect to find success immediately like I was able to when I was 18, but I’m officially in Serious Effort mode to recapture the social peace that I found for myself a decade ago.
Creative life is hard. Artists, designers, musicians, writers, actors... we all open ourselves up for a stab right where it would do the most damage, and sometimes we even take that opportunity to wound each other. I believe that gossip and negativity hurts even if the subject of interest never directly hears it, though in reality they might. I believe that with true support and strictly constructive criticism (it’s only constructive if it’s given to the person) we can not only grow a deeply connected and powerful creative community, but also our own sense of peace.