I coined this term a couple of years ago to describe the allure of engaging in pessimistic, cynical conversations with others, the shared sense of fatalism the glue holding the group together. At times I’ve personally found certain groups or individuals’ toxicity so attractive I’ve stuck fast to it. And for what purpose? A lesson from middle school is that talking shit about other people is one of the quickest, easiest ways to bond. One reason why is fear holds the group together–no one wants to leave, for fear their reputation and personality be dissected to bits and found lacking. As long as you’re there, they aren’t talking about you. If you’re on the outside, you can be sure they are. So you draw closer, and get sucked in. Sexy negative is like tar pits. Once you step in, it takes massive effort to get out. Sometimes you have to change your whole scene to escape. I made a New Year’s resolution in 2013 that I wasn’t going to be involved in sexy negativity anymore, because my personality and environment had become intensely toxic, a vibe I was perpetuating, my life sinking lower and lower into the depths. But at the beginning, approaching everything from a pessimistic angle, assuming the worst, and veiling every word and intention in a thick layer of sarcasm made me feel like I belonged; sexy negative.
Not long after I moved back to my hometown, I found myself in an exciting group of new friends, most of whom worked together. I was an outsider, brought into the group by my boyfriend, who wanted me to meet his awesome new colleagues, a fun, chatty, smart and interesting collection of people. They were mostly older than us, and had know each other for years. We were the new kids, and they took us in, inviting and including us in the community. Part of what made the group so attractive was the attention they paid each other, in the form of spirited mocking. People’s’ idiosyncrasies, past embarrassments, and personalities were all community property, and the group laughed hysterically telling and re-telling stories on each other. I fully subscribe to Oscar Wilde’s assertion that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, thus I fit right in. Within a few months, I noticed there were sharp jabs and harsh criticisms and judgements thrown in with the stories, often when a person was absent. It didn’t take long for me to feel panicked when I couldn’t make it out to meet up with the group. It was so bad at one point I spent a night of my honeymoon obsessing about a party the group was having while my new husband and I were thousands of miles away on Maui, wondering what they were doing, who was there, what they were talking about. I couldn’t stop checking my phone, constantly texting and asking for pics from the party. Why such tension? Because fear of being talked about, lambasted and judged behind our backs was keeping the group together. If you weren’t there, you were square.
When I began my first professional job outside of retail, I worked among PhDs, many of whom held MBAs. I knew I was in the Big Time, part of an elite group of academics, all of whom were incredibly brilliant in their fields, on the leading edge of world research contributions. While I wasn’t intimidated, I wondered how I would fit in, given my liberal arts, retail background. One of the senior managers invited me to lunch in my second week, where she confided in my all the dysfunctions both personal and professional within our office. I felt honored she would share such privileged information with me early on, and believed she was mentoring me, providing me with the notes on how to succeed and contribute, and what landmines to avoid. Soon she was calling me into her office for chats updating me on this person’s fuckups, or that boss’ bad decision, or how these people were in a conflict with those people, and that other person wasn’t even doing their job. Sexy, sexy negative. She was very well-respected in the office, and being singled out by her carried great political capital. I found myself observing others in meeting and noting their mistakes, or listening in on conversations so I could report privileged information back to her. She rewarded me by reflecting back more information, from her level. It became a cycle, us dissecting every action and decision to bits, finding everyone negligent or worse, incompetent. There were others in on the game, a few at my level, a few at hers. After a while I was showing up at work just to be included in the back channels, where all the important people were discussing how fucked up, fragmented and disordered our office was, on personality and group at a time. If you weren’t in, you were out, and you could be sure you’d be picked apart in meetings, your ideas attacked and dismissed, your emails forwarded to others with mean comments attached, your every move examined for a blunder then gleefully replayed. Your very intelligence and worth as a colleague were being questioned by those who held the social capital. Nothing was more alluring than receiving an email to come by her office, her motioning to you to close the door, lowering her voice and narrowing her eyes while starting in on a vivisection. No one would confront or challenge her, the stakes too high. Her political and social position, while she was two tiers below our Big Boss, was solid, unquestioned. She maintained her position because no one wanted to be in her crosshairs. We stuck by her, feeding her information because we were afraid to be next on the chopping block.
I’ve admitted before that I was a mean girl for many years of my young life, and it’s no surprise I would court sexy negative. I’ve found sexy negative to be the glowing center of many a personal or professional group, everyone wanting to pile on about how tired they are, or how much this week sucks, or how everything is the worst, or situation normal, all fucked up. It’s so damn easy to connect over what’s negative, that often it spreads like an infectious disease, causing the extreme cases of toxicity I’ve experienced. Ugh. It’s revolting, energy-sapping, all-consuming, endless and just plain gross. Yet it’s sexy, which is how it perpetuates. It feels great to be pulled into the center, lavished with attention and confidence. But when it turns to negativity, my suggestion is get out of there as soon as you can, lest you find yourself sinking lower and lower into a toxic, viscous mess, where all you see is the bad. It’s not sexy.