How I Made ½ of My Social Interactions Purposefully Awkward for 40 Days & LOVED IT (and why YOU should try it!)

By: Sarah Nichols*

In the Spring of 2014 I accidentally transformed my relationship with everyone I knew. More importantly, I improved my relationship with myself. Okay…that’s not totally true. I did it on purpose, but I promise the results were a surprise.

What I Did:

I didn’t go on a diet cleanse or start meditating. I wasn’t taking the scary and necessary step all people pleasers must consider by saying ‘no’ more often (still working on that) I didn’t even pick up one of the incredible new books about self-esteem, personal/professional alignment, or shame & vulnerability to begin changing my life by loving myself more (also still working on that)

I made a Lenten covenant (that is a very old sounding sentence, don’t you think?) In my religion (Christianity) we mark the life of Jesus Christ with our own ‘seasons’ throughout the year. In my denomination (United Methodist) we participate in one of those seasons in which we recognize the 40 days leading up to what we believe was the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion, and we call it Lent. Many in my religion and denomination decide to give up vices or add faith experiences during the season of Lent. There are several reasons given in congregations all over the world for why we give up things like vices for Lent, but my reason is so that I will a. be reminded that I often forget my connection to my faith during my day-to-day life and b. understand that there are many ‘things’ in my life which I believe I ‘need’, but definitely do not. In the past I have given up chocolate, soda, eating meat, and wearing make-up.

My Lenten covenant (promise) was this: Cut negativity. Add positivity.

Sounds hippy-dippy and ‘Pollyanna-ish’, but I am both of those things, so that’s okay. The following is an account of my experience what I plan to do with it.

Sarah Nichols Photo

Why I Did It:

Before my 2014 (life changing, totally amazing) Lenten season began, I had started a new job as ‘Director of Young Adult Mission & Service’ for the Oklahoma United Methodist Church. While I loved my new job and was very excited to jump into the work, I was feeling more stressed and anxious than I had in a while. Before Lent rolled around, I knew I needed to pay attention to what I was doing, thinking, and saying. I needed to find something that was feeding my anxiety and not developing my relationship with God, so I asked myself two altering questions; a. What do I do to relieve stress? and b. Is it really helping me feel better and be a better Christian?

The answer; I talk… A LOT. I love to text my friends throughout the day and visit coworkers who are friends to just chat. To be fair, I’ve always liked to talk. When I was little, I’d talk myself to sleep (…okay, I still do that) But something about my conversations and interactions had taken on a new tone. Talking wasn’t helping me feel closer or better connected to my friends and coworkers, but I was still doing plenty of chatting. So, what was I chatting about? Anything and everything, as long as I could judge it. I was starting sentences with “You’ll never believe what __________ said on Facebook.” or “Can you believe how stupid ______________ is?” I realized that three, mortifying and totally sad, things were true about my ‘chit chat’:

  1. I was speaking negatively about other people
  2. I was looking for and/or creating ways to speak negatively about others
  3. I was seeking justification and affirmation from others for my bad behavior

Embarrassing, right? Who does that? What kind of strong, educated, progressive, CHRISTIAN woman would seek out opportunities to say mean things about other people, beliefs, events, etc…? I was guilty of abusing every opportunity to get attention from others by introducing negativity into conversations. Was not behaving like someone who claims to follow Jesus. I had a deep desire to remove negativity and add positive frameworks to my relationships with others and personal mindset.

How It Went:

Absolutely no negative talk. I was allowed to answer a question ‘in the negative’ (i.e.: say ‘no’ if that was the answer I wanted/needed to give) and I was allowed to give bad news to someone IF it was necessary (ex: tell someone they did not receive a job with my program, relay bad news to my board if necessary, etc…), but that was it! No negative comments about someone else. No negative judgments about world events or news. And (this was a big one) absolutely no excuses (“But I needed to ‘vent’” “He/she asked me a question; I only told the truth!”) My Lenten 2014 Mantra: If you don’t have anything nice to say, Sarah Nichols, shut up or find something positive to add.

Days 1-10: The first ten days were a quiet hell. I had two options; 1) think of something nice to say or 2) don’t say anything. Because I had been so good at seeking out attention through negative conversations, I mostly just found myself standing awkwardly in other people’s conversations. I am a natural social butterfly, but overnight I’d become the kid standing silently and wanting so badly to add all of my judgments and opinions. Instead…silence.

When others would seek me out to have negative conversations about other people, I found myself feeling so bad for not participating. I didn’t want them to feel like I was judging them for judging others! Most of my half of these conversations consisted of one statement- “The only reason I’m not saying anything is because I gave up being negative for Lent. I’m really not trying to be condescending or silently judgmental to you…sorry.”

Days 11-20: The second ten days were when I got my stride. I remembered that this Lenten covenant was meant to add to my life, not take away. Instead of standing silently or awkwardly explaining my silence, I could add positivity to the conversations I was having. Sometimes I saw/heard/thought of something positive and ran to tell a friend or colleague (something to talk about! I love talking! Talking is my favorite!) Other times I responded to other people’s negativity with: “Yeah, but what if he/she is acting that way because they are really afraid of what will happen if _______ changes in their lives?” “Maybe he/she is just really invested in that issue. He/she seems really passionate.” (Still usually ended those comments with an explanation about why I was being positive instead of totally agreeing with the negativity that person was sharing.)

Days 21-30: The third ten days were similar to days 11-20, but a lot less awkward. I’d become a new version of my talkative self; a peppy, positive, smiley, sometimes annoying to my coworkers Sarah was emerging, and I loved her! Most comments felt natural and I was not explaining myself or apologizing.

Days 31-40:  The last ten days of Lent are usually pretty reflective, and my experience was no different. I went to every service available at my church and reflected and prayed specifically about my removal of negativity during that season. I apologized for the times I slipped up and I held myself more accountable than before to move towards a complete removal of negativity in the last week of Lent.

Where once I had sought out conversations to discuss other people, now I was seeking out friends and colleagues to talk about how awesome I felt! I was looking, more intently than ever, for ways to create positive gossip about people and events.

What I Learned:

I had three major take-aways from my time cutting negativity and adding positivity:

  1. Creating ‘positive gossip’ is SO.MUCH.FUN! Spreading stories of nice things other people were doing or saying was a blast. I was getting my ‘chit chat’ taken care of AND putting happier stories into the world.
  2. It is very difficult not to affirm someone else’s negativity. When someone would come to me with gossip or venting, I felt guilty for not participating to make them feel heard and affirmed. There are about seven more articles/blog posts to be written about why we want so badly to make other people feel good about behaving badly, but I’ll just say this- it didn’t feel good.
  3. I did NOT end up feeling like a ‘better Christian’, but I did feel better about my Christianity. Taking the extra effort to remove negative thoughts and speech from my own mindset reminded me of how far I had to go to FIRST think of positive gossip. It was always an extra step, a reminder, that I was working on being more positive. And the world was affirming negativity all around me! So, no, I did not feel like a ‘better Christian’ for removing negativity, but I did feel better about my Christianity for working more purposefully to find positivity around me. I didn’t feel like I’d somehow overcome how ‘annoying’ or ‘awful’ a person was by digging deep to find something positive about them (I’m not a negativity fighting martyr) Instead, I felt like God was revealing what I’d been missing before. When I spoke with people I would normally find fault with and, instead, looked for the natural goodness within their work and personalities, I felt closer to the call God had made on my life to affirm and lift up all of God’s children.

What’s Next?

I’m doing it again, and I’m inviting others to join me! Today (September 17th, 2015) is my 29th birthday, and I am challenging myself to live without negativity for one year. Although I do continue to look for positivity around me and spread ‘positive gossip’, I have reverted back to some of my negative habits, and I really don’t like it. This time I’m going to reflect on my experience publicly and am hoping that my social network will a) hold me accountable and b) be encouraged to add more positivity to their own lives based on my reflections.

(Facebook: Sarah Nichols / Twitter: @snichols17s / Instagram: snichols17s)

I want to invite you and your friends to join me! Social media and our current culture of ‘shame & blame’ makes it sometimes very difficult to get away from negativity about others. And it is so hard not to feel justified in gossip and negative talk; our communities tend to justify and affirm it. I encourage a) doing it with a friend, because accountability builds character and helps you stick with something like this AND b) starting small, because it is proven to be more sustainable. I’ve included a potential plan below.

1st Month/October- 1 day per week dedicated to removing negativity and adding positivity to your thoughts and conversations. (*I encourage you to pick Sunday, but it’s totally up to you.)

2nd Month/November- 2 days per week… (*Sunday & Monday)

3rd Month/December- 3 days per week… (*Sunday, Monday, & Tuesday)

4th Month/January- 4 days per week… (*Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, & Wednesday)

5th Month/February- 5 days per week… (*Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, & Thursday)

6th Month/March- 6 days per week… (*Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, & Friday)

7th Month/April- 7 days per week… (*ALL WEEK!)

8th Month-12th Month/May-September- Keep it going!

*Sarah is also the Executive Director of Project Transformation Oklahoma, a non-profit summer literacy camp for underserved children. The camp is a partnership between the Oklahoma United Methodist Church and AmeriCorps and is run through college student internships and local church volunteers.

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