Spinning negatives into positives

Posted on February 22, 2019 by Elsa Tuet-Rosenberg

Let’s be honest: high school isn’t all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. When we meet new people for the first time, it can seem like judgements and first impressions are automatic, but sometimes these can be harmful. Throughout high school, we are constantly meeting new people, navigating social groups and trying to find our crowd; so it’s understandable that we can often be tempted and even encouraged to view the people around us negatively.

In one of our workshops at PROJECT ROCKIT, we show a series of different peoples photos and ask students to share their first impressions. On average, 80-90% of the words people share are negative. This is consistent among a range of age groups (including adults!) all over Australia. If this is the way we generally respond to meeting someone new or consider the people around us, this can lead to negativity, stereotyping and sometimes discrimination for ourselves and others at school.

So, why do we do this? Why do people often leap to negative judgements automatically?? We often hear a few different ideas from students:

  • We feel pressure to fit in with our friends
  • It can be vulnerable to be kind
  • It can be bonding between you and your friends to say mean things
  • People put others down to feel better about themselves

Now, this last one is the one I find the most interesting. Students often observe that saying something negative about someone else can make us feel better about ourselves and our own flaws or shortcomings. However, upon thinking about it more, I’ve formed a different view.

When I started deliberately paying attention to people’s incredible qualities instead of their flaws, their successes instead of their failures, their talents instead of their shortcomings; I felt so much better about myself.

Why? Well, once I started practising seeing people as their best selves, it suddenly became easier to give that generosity to myself. I no longer felt like I always had to talk about the things I was bad at, or deny my skills or passions, or shrink myself down. Other people’s funniness, creativity and beauty, didn’t make mine any less. In fact, surrounding myself with people with amazing qualities and being able to recognise them, made me appreciate these things in myself. Congratulating and celebrating others for their achievements made me feel like I had the right to have pride in my own. This appreciation was pretty life changing for me, and has made me so much more confident and happy with myself in my own skin.

At the same time, sometimes it can be difficult to see the positives in others, especially when so many of the words or labels being thrown around to describe people at school can be so harsh – you can almost forget people’s great qualities! So what do we do about this? I have found it useful to look at the negative words I was using to describe the people around me (and myself) and try to find positive alternatives. I started to find that nearly all labels could be looked at positively or neutrally if we choose! Check out some examples:

  • “Nerd” alternatives – clever, hard working, intelligent, dedicated
  • “Weird” alternatives – different, unique, interesting, individual
  • “Slutty” alternatives – body confident, sexually empowered
  • “Attention-seeker” alternatives – confident, enthusiastic, loud, entertainer
  • “Bossy” alternatives – assertive, leader, confident, strong, empowered
  • “Suck Up” alternatives – kind, generous, empathetic, keeper of the peace
  • “Too serious” alternatives – dedicated, ambitious, motivated, perseverant

Once I started seeing these qualities as positives in other people, I could finally do the same for myself. Where I once saw myself as bossy, too serious and a nerd, I started seeing myself as strong, a leader, dedicated, ambitious and hardworking, which I now see as some of my best qualities. The people around me, that I first saw as weird, I started appreciating for their individuality and began loving them for what made them unique.

Also, once you put energy into switching your thinking and you start seeing more positive qualities in yourselves and others, the things that we’re not so great at become less of a big deal. Sure, maybe you’re not great at sport, but you’re a great storyteller, or have a hilarious sense of humour. The people around you have weaknesses, but focusing on their few flaws is nowhere near as fun or empowering, as celebrating their many strengths!

Elsa is a presenter at PROJECT ROCKIT and works with school students all over Australia to challenge bullying, hate and prejudice.