Gossip and negative talk have been on my mind for months: why we do it, how it hurts us, how it hurts others, and how we stop doing it. When I gossip I find myself wracked with guilt after the fact, disappointed that of all the things in this world to talk about, I chose something that doesn't add more to life. When others gossip to me I can't help but think, "What do they say about me when I'm not around?"
Why are we drawn to destructive and hurtful habits? Why do we gossip?
1. To feel superior when we feel inferior; to relieve anxiety and discomfort.
I was at an out-of-town wedding this summer for one of my best friends. I knew a few other people at the wedding, but no one very well, other than the bride. Ordinarily, I do fine in situations like this, but on this night, for whatever reason, I felt off. I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb as the weirdo single girl with no friends at a wedding.
So what did I do to relieve the discomfort I was feeling about the storyline I had developed? I started talking to the girl on my right about the drunk guy on my left. He wasn't doing anything wrong. He was being a typical, jovial wedding guest. I was the one with the problem. I felt uncomfortable. I felt anxious. I felt awkward and out of place. I went after someone else so I would feel less uneasy.
Most of the negative feelings we experience are self-induced. But we don't stop there. Then we take further actions, like gossiping, to overcompensate in order to bring an imaginary imbalance back to center. All we end up doing though is driving ourselves further into this perceived disparity of "us" and "them."
2. To get something we want or to protect something we already have.
This is tricky, tricky territory. The ego likes to pretend it always has our best interests in mind. Our egos, the things that try to smother fear instead of confronting it, will self-righteously justify gossip or negative talk by telling us that we are protecting ourselves, our loved ones, our things, even our futures.
Here's an example: have you ever casually let something negative slip about someone else, let's say a coworker, because it painted you in a better light? I have. When I think back, those situations are wrapped in fear: fear my achievements won't be recognized as my own (ego), fear someone else's mistake will be attributed to me (ego), fear of losing control of my work or my credibility (ego). It's a subtle, but powerful, manipulation of ourselves and others. It affirms the misbelief that we can manage all the pieces of the story to get the outcomes we desire.
But when I hold tight to the belief that what I have is enough, and that more importantly, who I am is enough, gossip becomes powerless--it is not strong enough to keep me from losing what I'm afraid to lose nor is strong enough to earn me what I'm afraid I'll never get. My value comes from my efforts.
3. To disengage from the present moment.
When we get down to brass tacks, we gossip because we don't like something we're feeling about ourselves in that moment. I hate writing that as much as you probably hate reading it. When we gossip, we are distancing ourselves from our reality so that we don't have to confront something within us that we're avoiding.
It isn't necessarily what we're sharing (although that can do real damage), it's why we're sharing it. When I'm disturbed, there is something wrong with me. Gossip cuts us off from the truth--the truth about others and the truth about ourselves in that moment. It is unproductive and slows us down.
How do we stop gossiping and negative talk?
1. Avoid creating or maintaining "gossip buddies."
You know who they are. Quick gut check: if the only thing you have in common with a person is talking about other people, is this relationship truly serving you, your higher self? Cut conversations with these people short or cut them out altogether.
2. Deflect with good intentions.
Instead of using gossip to deflect, use kindness and concern to deflect. What I mean is, if someone is gossiping to you and it's making you uncomfortable, or if you're wanting to gossip because you're uncomfortable, turn the conversation around. Don't give gossip a seat at the table. Take an active and sincere interest in the other person. Ask questions. How are you? What's new with your kids? How are your mom and dad these days? Interested people are interesting.
3. Watch your mood.
I've learned the hard way that when I'm emotionally fired up about something, this is not the best time to open my mouth. The best thing I can do when I'm feeling angry, jealous, annoyed, anything less than serene, is to turn my attention to something productive until I've calmed down: read a book, work out, wash the dishes, whatever it takes to keep me from saying something I don't really mean or that might hurt someone else.
4. Carefully vent.
We all have to vent sometimes. Expecting to live on an elevated spiritual plane all of the time only creates unnecessary disappointment and shame when we inevitably fall. Identify one or two consistent people--not five or ten rotating people--that can hold your vents without judgement and help you find relief. Give that relationship your utmost respect.
Unfortunately, when we gossip or say negative things about others we end up saying a lot more about ourselves. Where we think we are hiding insecurities or smothering fears, we're only shining a spotlight on them. If we do this long enough, we end up pretty sick.
If I'm talking about someone behind his or her back, I need to ask myself why I'm doing that. Am I jealous? Am I angry? Am I afraid?
If I'm listening, whether passively or actively, to someone else gossip, why am I doing that? Am I lonely? Am I bored? Do I feel obligated?
What is going on in my life that I don't want to be present for? Whose life am I using to distract from mine?
If you don't like the answers to some or all of these questions, that's okay. I don't either. Now we have something to work with though, a place to start.
Today, what are you willing to do to make a change?