Negative vs. Positive Attention

Why do we allow others to give us their negative attention & energy? Why do we keep coming back for more of their criticism, their complaints, their dissatisfaction, and their disappointment even when it doesn’t feel good to us? We’ve been doing it for so many years with our parents, teachers, pastors, bosses, children, friends, and companies, many of us don’t even realize when it’s happening.

The reality is that negative attention may have been the only attention we received when we were young and little positive attention was available. We were not taught how to give it to ourselves, and so we went without.

For some of us, when others gave us negative attention, we learned to see ourselves as somehow responsible or ‘at cause’ for their experience and spent our efforts trying to make things right. It’s like the negative attention gave us something to ‘fix’. Others learned that while they don’t like this experience, they don’t see a way out that is respectful to everyone, so they simply tolerate it. A few of us learned to stand our ground, yet most of us haven’t. And some of us, when we feel powerless, may look to make another feel powerless instead as a way to get our power back. This is the art of the bully. They first question and then invalidate everything about their victim in a powerplay to show their superiority. While they may look powerful, they are driven by a fear of being seen as powerless.

If our caregivers were unable to regulate or resolve their own negative emotions or mental state, we became an easy target, and source of relief, when they released their internal pressure our way. As a result, we expect negative words and attitudes from others – it’s just the way it is. AND we often treat ourselves the same way on the inside in our mind.

We generate and then respond to the inner story that says if we could just be better, faster, smarter, prettier, more experienced, stronger, sexier – then they might treat us better.

And some of us have become so disconnected from our feelings, that we tell ourselves the story that the attention isn’t even negative – it’s just that the person cares so much they want us to improve and be even better! Rarely is this the truth. This is the same as our ego story. If we could just be ‘more’ or ‘different’, then we can get the positive attention/love/acceptance/approval we so desperately want. And we fall for it every time.

What if their criticism, control, complaints, and other negative attention has nothing to do with us?

What if negative attention isn’t healthy for us? Like toxic food or liquids, negative energy is just as poisonous to our bio-energetic system. What if we decided to no longer accept negative attention from others or from ourselves? What if Instead of thinking that it is our ‘deficit’ that has others treat us this way, it had nothing to do with us? What if the other person was experiencing the same things as we are? What if their criticism, control, complaints, and other negative attention has nothing to do with us? What if it’s simply their own ego telling them the same story that ours tells us and they are simply listening to that? When we can recognize that negative attention from someone else has nothing to do with us, then we can let ourselves off the hook as the source of it. We can remember that everyone is working on the same thing – accepting themselves and others exactly as they are without the need to make ourselves or others wrong. This awareness can help us step out of these moments/situations and respond in a way that is compassionate to both them and us.

When I find myself faced with another’s negative attention, here is what I do. First, I check in to see what just got triggered inside of me. I ask myself, ‘is this comment/question/recommendation activating a judgment I already have inside about myself?’ If it is, I challenge it and replace it with positive attention for myself. For example, when my husband ‘hovers’ over me as I cook, asking questions about how I’m seasoning it, or says the heat is too high or not high enough, I get triggered. I remember feeling judged by my mother when I cooked or cleaned, and the old inner story my ego tells is that I am going to screw it up, and then she is going to be upset and no one wants that. Once I recognize this, I remind myself that I don’t have to receive any negative attention from anyone and then I address it directly. I tell my husband that his questions and comments are not helping me, and to please leave the kitchen until I’m done. The first time I did this, he was a little surprised, even a little ‘pouty’ but respected my request. I explained over the meal what gets triggered for me and told him I’ll be asking him to leave the kitchen when it happens again. Now, when it happens, and I ask him to leave, we both giggle about it.

It’s light and easy and we both simply accept that we sometimes get caught in the old pattern and no one is bad or wrong – it’s simply what we are working on. THIS kind of attention is positive. It acknowledges how it is, without either one of us being wrong.

How can you shift the attention you receive from negative to positive?


Wendy Watson-Hallowell | The Belief Coach
Wendy Watson-Hallowell | The Belief Coach
WENDY is passionate about enabling individuals, organizations and communities to value themselves and each other in the ongoing process of change. Wendy has guided hundreds of individuals and over 750+ public and private sector organizations to achieve tangible increases in impact and performance. Her successful practice in mentoring and coaching has led to authorship of the book, ‘Live a Life You Love and Make a Living Doing It’. Over the last 30 years, Wendy’s skills have been honed in leadership roles at MTV Networks, The Rensselaerville Institute, and a variety of community based projects in her town. In 2015 she launched BeliefWorks and offers Belief Coaching as a way to address the root cause of what limits the results we can achieve both personally and professionally. This is an 'upstream' solution to change. Instead of changing limiting behavior, she focuses on changing the limiting beliefs that drive that behavior. In all cases, her clients and partners speak to the specific increases in achievement that her consulting, coaching and partnership roles make possible.

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  1. This is such a rich article, Wendy, thank you. I loved the story of your husband pouting. I applaud you for being able to voice your need in a way that made him realize this wan against him but for you.

    I think we are hardwired for wanting to have things the way we want them, so when we get it, that becomes baseline. We don’t see if things got that way through effort of other members of the household and thus forget to thank them when they contribute positively.
    To remind MYSELF, I hung a big tree on a bulletin board next to the kids’ bathroom, and when they did chores unprompted, played nicely, were helpful, did what I wanted them to do, I wrote what I liked on a big red cardboard apple and let them put it on the tree. I have no idea if the kids were influenced by it, but I was.

    Writing this, I wonder if it will work on my husband…?