The Constricted (Negative) Attitude

Life is inherently chaotic and unpredictable. The human animal, however, does not react well to uncertainty. People who feel particularly weak and vulnerable tend to adopt an attitude toward life that narrows what they experience so that they can reduce the possibility of unexpected events. This negative, narrowing attitude often has its origins in early childhood. Some children have little comfort or support in facing a frightening world. They develop various psychological strategies to constrict what they have to see and experience. They build up elaborate defenses to keep out other viewpoints. They become increasingly self-absorbed. In most situations they come to expect bad things to happen, and their goals in life revolve around anticipating and neutralizing bad experiences to better control them. As they get older, this attitude becomes more entrenched and narrower, making any kind of psychological growth nearly impossible.

These attitudes have a self-sabotaging dynamic. Such people make others feel the same negative emotion that dominates their attitude, which helps confirm them in their beliefs about people. They do not see the role that their own actions play, how they often are the instigators of the negative response. They only see people persecuting them, or bad luck overwhelming them. By pushing people away, they make it doubly hard to have any success in life, and in their isolation their attitude gets worse. They are caught in a vicious cycle

The following are the five most common forms of the constricted attitude. Negative emotions have a binding power—a person who is angry is more prone to also feel suspicion, deep insecurities, resentment, et cetera. And so we often find combinations of these various negative attitudes, each one feeding and accentuating the other. Your goal is to recognize the various signs of such attitudes that exist in you in latent and weakened forms, and to root them out; to see how they operate in a stronger version in other people, better understanding their perspective on life; and to learn how to handle people with such attitudes.

The Hostile Attitude. Some children exhibit a hostile attitude at a very early age. They interpret weaning and the natural separation from parents as hostile actions. Other children must deal with a parent who likes to punish and inflict hurt. In both cases, the child looks out on a world that seems fraught with hostility, and their answer is to seek to control it by becoming the source of the hostility themselves. At least then it is no longer so random and sudden. As they get older, they become adept at stimulating anger and frustration in others, which justifies their original attitude—“See, people are against me, I am disliked, and for no apparent reason.”

In a relationship, a husband with a hostile attitude will accuse his wife of not really loving him. If she protests and becomes defensive, he will see this as a sign that she has to try hard to disguise the truth. If she is intimidated into silence, he sees that as a sign that he was right all along. In her confusion, she can easily begin to feel some hostility on her part, confirming his opinion. People with this attitude have many other subtle tricks up their sleeve for provoking the hostility they secretly want to feel directed at them—withdrawing their cooperation on a project at just the wrong moment, constantly being late, doing a poor job, deliberately making an unfavorable first impression. But they never see themselves as playing any kind of role in instigating the reaction.

Their hostility permeates everything they do—the way they argue and provoke (they are always right); the nasty undertone of their jokes; the greediness with which they demand attention; the pleasure they get out of criticizing others and seeing them fail. You can recognize them by how they are easily moved to anger in these situations. Their life, as they describe it, is full of battles, betrayals, persecutions, but seemingly not originating from them. In essence, they are projecting their own hostile feelings onto other people and are primed to read them in almost any apparently innocent action. Their goal in life is to feel persecuted and to desire some form of revenge. Such types generally have career problems, as their anger and hostility frequently flare up. This gives them something else to complain about and a basis on which to blame the world for being against them.

If you notice signs of this attitude in yourself, such self-awareness is a major step toward being able to get rid of it. You can also try a simple experiment: Approach people you are meeting for the first time, or only know peripherally, with various positive thoughts—“I like them,” “They seem smart,” et cetera. None of this is verbalized, but you do your best to feel such emotions. If they respond with something hostile or defensive, then perhaps the world is truly against you. More than likely you will not see anything that could be remotely construed as negative. In fact, you will see the opposite. Clearly, then, the source of any hostile response is you.

In dealing with the extremes of this type, struggle as best you can to not respond with the antagonism they expect. Maintain your neutrality. This will confound them and temporarily put a stop to the game they are playing. They feed off your hostility, so do not give them fuel.

The Anxious Attitude. These types anticipate all kinds of obstacles and difficulties in any situation they face. With people, they often expect some sort of criticism or even betrayal. All of this stimulates unusual amounts of anxiety before the fact. What they really fear is losing control of the situation. Their solution is to limit what can possibly happen, to narrow the world they deal with. This means limiting where they go and what they’ll attempt. In a relationship, they will subtly dominate the domestic rituals and habits; they will seem brittle and demand extra careful attention. This will dissuade people from criticizing them. Everything must be on their terms. At work they will be ferocious perfectionists and micromanagers, eventually sabotaging themselves by trying to keep on top of too many things. Once outside their comfort zone—the home or the relationship they dominate—they become unusually fretful.

Sometimes they can disguise their need for control as a form of love and concern. When Franklin Roosevelt came down with polio in 1921, at the age of thirty-nine, his mother, Sara, did all she could to restrict his life and keep him to one room in the house. He would have to give up his political career and surrender to her care. Franklin’s wife, Eleanor, knew him better. What he wanted and needed was to slowly get back to something resembling his old life. It became a battle between the mother and the daughter-in-law that Eleanor eventually won. The mother was able to disguise her anxious attitude and need to dominate her son through her apparent love, transforming him into a helpless invalid.

Another disguise, similar to such love, is to seek to please and cajole people in order to disarm any possible unpredictable and unfriendly action. (See chapter 4, Toxic Types, The Pleaser.)

If you notice such tendencies in yourself, the best antidote is to pour your energies into work. Focusing your attention outward into a project of some sort will have a calming effect. As long as you rein in your perfectionistic tendencies, you can channel your need to control into something productive. With people, try to slowly open yourself to their habits and pace of doing things, instead of the opposite. This can show you that you have nothing to fear by loosening control. Deliberately place yourself in the circumstances you most dread, discovering that your fears are grossly exaggerated. You are slowly introducing a bit of chaos into your overly ordered life.

In dealing with those with this attitude, try to not feel infected with their anxiety, and instead try to provide the soothing influence they so lacked in their earliest years. If you radiate calmness, your manner will have greater effect than your words.

The Avoidant Attitude. People with this attitude see the world through the lens of their insecurities, generally related to doubts about their competence and intelligence. Perhaps as children they were made to feel guilty and uncomfortable with any efforts to excel and stand out from siblings; or they were made to feel bad about any kind of mistake or possible misbehavior. What they came to dread most was the judgment of their parents. As these people get older, their main goal in life is to avoid any kind of responsibility or challenge in which their self-esteem might be at stake and for which they can be judged. If they do not try too hard in life, they cannot fail or be criticized.

To enact this strategy they will constantly seek escape routes, consciously or unconsciously. They will find the perfect reason for leaving a job early and changing careers, or breaking off a relationship. In the middle of some high-stakes project they will suddenly develop an illness that will cause them to leave. They are prone to all kinds of psychosomatic maladies. Or they become alcoholics, addicts of some sort, always falling off the wagon at the right time but blaming this on the “disease” they have, and their bad upbringing that caused their addiction. If it weren’t for alcohol, they could’ve been a great writer or entrepreneur, so they say. Other strategies will include wasting time and starting too late on something, always with some built-in excuse for why that happened. They then cannot be blamed for the mediocre results. These types find it hard to commit to anything, for a good reason. If they remained at a job or in a relationship, their flaws might become too apparent to others. Better to slip away at the right moment and maintain the illusion—to themselves and to others—of their possible greatness, if only . . . Although they are generally motivated by the great fear of failing and the judgments that ensue, they are also secretly afraid of success—for with success come responsibilities and the need to live up to them. Success might also trigger their early fears about standing out and excelling.

You can easily recognize such people by their checkered careers and their short-term personal relationships. They may try to disguise the source of their problems by seeming saintly—they look down on success and people who have to prove themselves. Often they will present themselves as noble idealists, propagating ideas that will never come to pass but that will add to the saintly aura they wish to project. Having to enact ideals might expose them to criticism or failure, so they choose those that are too lofty and unrealistic for the times they live in. Do not be fooled by the holier-than-thou front they present. Look at their actions, the lack of accomplishments, the great projects they never start on, always with a good excuse.

If you notice traces of this attitude in yourself, a good strategy is to take on a project of even the smallest scale, taking it all the way to completion and embracing the prospect of failure. If you fail, you will have already cushioned the blow because you anticipated it, and inevitably it will not hurt as much as you had imagined. Your selfesteem will rise because you finally tried something and finished it. Once you diminish this fear, progress will be easy. You will want to try again. And if you succeed, all the better. Either way, you win.

When you find others with this attitude, be very wary of forming partnerships with them. They are masters at slipping away at the wrong moment, at getting you to do all of the hard work and take the blame if it fails. At all costs avoid the temptation to help or rescue them from their negativity. They are too good at the avoidance game.

The Depressive Attitude. As children, these types did not feel loved or respected by their parents. For helpless children, it is too much to imagine that their parents could be wrong or flawed in their parenting. Even if unloved, they still are dependent on them. And so their defense is to often internalize the negative judgment and imagine that they are indeed unworthy of being loved, that there is something actually wrong with them. In this way they can maintain the illusion that their parents are strong and competent. All of this occurs quite unconsciously, but the feeling of being worthless will haunt such people their entire lives. Deep down they will feel ashamed of who they are and not really know why they feel this way.

As adults they will anticipate abandonment, loss, and sadness in their experiences and see signs of potentially depressing things in the world around them. They are secretly drawn to what is gloomy in the world, to the seamy side of life. If they can manufacture some of the depression they feel in this way, it at least is under their control. They are consoled by the thought that the world is a dreary place. A strategy they will employ throughout their lives is to temporarily withdraw from life and from people. This will feed their depression and also make it something they can manage to some extent, as opposed to traumatic experiences imposed upon them.

An excellent example of this type was the talented German composer and conductor Hans von Bülow (1830–1894). In 1855 von Bülow met and fell in love with Cosima Liszt (1837–1930), the charismatic daughter of the composer Franz Liszt. Cosima was drawn to von Bülow’s air of sadness. He lived with his domineering and hostile mother, and Cosima had great sympathy for him. She wanted to rescue von Bülow and transform him into a great composer. They were soon married. As time went on, Cosima could see that he felt quite inferior in relation to her intelligence and strong will. Soon he began to question her love for him. He continually withdrew from her during his bouts of depression. When she became pregnant, he suddenly developed some mysterious ailment that prevented him from being with her. Without warning he could become quite cold.

Feeling unloved and neglected, she began an affair with the famous composer Richard Wagner, who was a friend and colleague of von Bülow’s. Cosima had the feeling that von Bülow had unconsciously encouraged their affair. When she eventually left von Bülow to live with Wagner, von Bülow bombarded her with letters, blaming himself for what had happened; he was unworthy of her love. He would then go on about the bad turn in his career, his various illnesses, his suicidal tendencies. Although he criticized himself, she could not help but feel guilty and depressed for somehow being responsible. Recounting all of his woes seemed like his subtle way of wounding her. She compared each letter to “a sword twisted in my heart.” And they kept coming, year after year, until he remarried and repeated the same pattern with his new wife.

These types often have a secret need to wound others, encouraging behavior such as betrayal or criticism that will feed their depression. They will also sabotage themselves if they experience any kind of success, feeling deep down that they don’t deserve it. They will develop blocks in their work, or take criticism to mean they should not continue with their career. Depressive types can often attract people to them, because of their sensitive nature; they stimulate the desire to want to help them. But like von Bülow, they will start to criticize and wound the ones who wish to help, then withdraw again. This push and pull causes confusion, but once under their spell it is hard to disengage from them without feeling guilty. They have a gift for making other people feel depressed in their presence. This gives them more fuel to feed off.

Most of us have depressive tendencies and moments. The best way to handle them is to be aware of their necessity—they are our body’s and mind’s way of compelling us to slow down, to lower our energies and withdraw. Depressive cycles can serve positive purposes. The solution is to realize their usefulness and temporary quality. The depression you feel today will not be with you in a week, and you can ride it out. If possible, find ways to elevate your energy level, which will physically help lift you out of the mood. The best way to handle recurrent depression is to channel your energies into work, especially the arts. You are used to withdrawing and being alone; use such time to tap into your unconscious. Externalize your unusual sensitivity and your dark feelings into the work itself.

Never try to lift up depressive people by preaching to them about the wonderfulness of life. Instead, it is best to go along with their gloomy opinion of the world while subtly drawing them into positive experiences that can elevate their moods and energy without any direct appeal.

The Resentful Attitude. As children, these types never felt they got enough parental love and affection—they were always greedy for more attention. They carry this sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment with them throughout their lives. They are never quite getting the recognition they deserve. They are experts at scanning people’s faces for signs of possible disrespect or disdain. They see everything in relation to themselves; if someone has more than they do, it is a sign of injustice, a personal affront. When they feel this lack of respect and recognition, they do not explode in anger. They are generally cautious and like to control their emotions. Instead, the hurt incubates inside them, the sense of injustice growing stronger as they reflect on this. They do not easily forget. At some point they will take their revenge in some shrewdly plotted act of sabotage or passive aggression.

Because they have a continual feeling of being wronged, they tend to project this on to the world, seeing oppressors everywhere. In this way, they often become the leader of those who feel disaffected and oppressed. If such types get power, they can become quite vicious and vengeful, finally able to vent their resentments on various victims. In general, they carry themselves with an air of arrogance; they are above others even if no one recognizes this. They carry their head a little too high; they frequently have a slight smirk or look of disdain. As they get older, they are prone to pick petty battles, unable to completely contain their resentments that have accumulated over time. Their bitter attitude pushes a lot of people away, and so they often end up congregating with others who have this attitude, as their form of community.

The Roman emperor Tiberius (42 BC–AD 37) is perhaps the most classic example of this type. As a child, his tutor noticed something wrong with the boy. “He is a pitcher molded with blood and bile,” the tutor once wrote to a friend. The writer Suetonius, who knew Tiberius, described him as follows: “He carried himself with his head held proudly high. . . . He was almost always silent, never saying a word except now and again. . . . And even then he did so with extreme reluctance, at the same time always making a disdainful gesture with his fingers.” Emperor Augustus, his stepfather, had to continually apologize to the Senate for “his displeasing manners, full of haughtiness.” Tiberius hated his mother—she never loved him enough. He never felt appreciated by Augustus, or his soldiers, or the Roman people. When he became emperor, he slowly and methodically took revenge on those who he felt had slighted him, and such revenge would be cold and cruel.

As he got older, he became increasingly unpopular. His enemies were legion. Feeling the hatred of his subjects, he retired to the island of Capri, where he spent the last eleven years of his reign, almost completely avoiding Rome. He was known to repeat to others in his last years, “After me, let fire destroy the earth!” At his death Rome exploded with celebration, the crowds voicing their feelings with the famous phrase “Into the Tiber [River] with Tiberius!”

If you notice resentful tendencies within yourself, the best antidote is to learn to let go of hurts and disappointments in life. It is better to explode into anger in the moment, even it if it’s irrational, than to stew on slights that you have probably hallucinated or exaggerated. People are generally indifferent to your fate, not as antagonistic as you imagine. Very few of their actions are really directed at you. Stop seeing everything in personal terms. Respect is something that must be earned through your achievements, not something given to you simply for being human. You must break out of the resentful cycle by becoming more generous toward people and human nature.

In dealing with such types, you must exercise supreme caution. Although they might smile and seem pleasant, they are actually scrutinizing you for any possible insult. You can recognize them by their history of past battles and sudden breaks with people, as well as how easily they judge others. You might try to slowly gain their trust and lower their suspicions; but be aware that the longer you are around them, the more fuel you will give them for something to resent, and their response can be quite vicious. Better to avoid this type if possible.

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