Sunday, 21 June 2015

When can persistence be negative?

When you hear the word "persistence", it is hard to think of anything but something positive.  "She was persistent and so she got the job"; "He knows how to persist when times get difficult".  Yet as is the case with all traits, a characteristic is neither positive or negative in and of itself.  Whether a trait is positive or negative depends on degree and context.

Recently, therapists have coined an interesting term, "negative persistence".  Needless to say, it refers to situations where a person keeps plugging away at something despite the fact that doing so has become hurtful.  For some of us, being tough minded has been such a strong survival trait that we may not be aware when pushing ahead is backfiring.  Perhaps the most salient example of this for me as a therapist was when a client of mine so badly wanted to be close to her brothers that she was willing to do anything to win them over.   Their dad had died recently and the will had created a rift which had made it even more important to her to be able to reconcile these relationships.  Yet her brothers who had never really given her the time of day, would disregard her calls and texts and when she was finally able to talk with them, they would put her down in the worst possible ways, discounting any positives that she shared from her life. Accepting that people in our lives whom we love are simply not interested in connecting is terribly painful.  This is an easy situation in which to keep trying despite hitting up against a wall of concrete.

We have all had the experience of persisting in situations without realizing that it was not the best action to take.  Common examples are:  trying to get a teenage son to keep his room clean; working overtime trying to please your boss, your mother or your father when they simply are not able or willing to give you what you are looking for; trying to warn a friend that the guy she is seeing is bad news; refusing to give up on an argument because you know you are right; or trying to persuade your daughter that her friendship circle needs changing.  In all these cases, pushing too hard can come back to bite you. Persisting just creates a tug of war between you and the other person and damages the relationship. The First Nations people call this: "creating bad medicine".

What makes us keep pushing when it would be far wiser to simply let go?  If you take a look at times you hammered away refusing to stop, you might just find out that the culprit was fear.  Fear can get us to do all kinds of foolish things without thinking. The wise mind takes a vacation and you are on automatic pilot.  To cease engaging in negative persistence, one has to have the courage to stop and face the fear that fuels it.  This can be uncomfortable for sure, however, the price to be paid for not visiting your discomfort is often not only disconnection from yourself but a disconnect from someone you love.  


  1. This is a very important topic, the issue of knowing when to quit and to let go. It is easy to become obstinate about an issue and to now know when to stop fighting something. We can in fact become obsessive and controlling in not accepting that not all issues can go our way. This is obvious in litigation when people spend their entire inheritances to prove a point or stick to a principle. As in the law of "diminishing returns", sometimes it is better to cut your losses.

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