I didn’t realize that complaining about someone for years was gossip.
In hindsight, it’s pretty surprising that this didn’t register as “gossip” to me. Talking negatively behind someone’s back for years on end is pretty much the definition of gossip. But there was a lot about my thinking and behavior before 12 step recovery that was outside of my awareness. In recovery, we call that “denial.” I’ll tell you what I learned about gossip and how to stop below. But first, a tiny bit of context.
There is more than one kind of denial.
This denial I speak of is not the typical denial where we hear something and say, “that’s not true.” This is much more nuanced. Maybe we forgot parts of our childhood. Maybe we don’t see the connection between family patterns and adult behavior. Maybe we minimize the effects of dysfunctional or traumatic experiences. Mostly, this kind of denial is about believing things are “normal” or healthy when they’re actually dysfunctional.
People-pleasing is a good example of that. I used to think I was “nice.” Then I learned that people-pleasing is manipulative and dishonest. I was in complete denial about how dysfunctional it was. The same was true for gossip. Coming out of denial is important in changing long-standing behavior. You can’t clean up something you don’t realize is a problem.
I didn’t understand that I was gossiping; I thought I was complaining. I thought I was commiserating with others about how difficult my boss was. I felt justified in complaining. That was a way to make myself feel better about my behavior. It reinforced my belief that the other person was the problem (i.e., my victim mentality). Once I learned that all this was gossip, I knew I needed to stop.
If you want authentic relationships, you need to communicate directly with people.
If you’re looking to have more authentic relationships with others, gossip may be preventing it. Stopping gossip requires we learn to directly communicate our wants, needs and preferences to others. That means we have to keep the focus on ourselves rather than others. Otherwise we’re not going to know what we really want, need and prefer.
Probably the most important element of me becoming able to establish boundaries and communicate directly was this: I now care more what I think of me than what others do. That doesn’t mean I don’t care at all what others think of me, of course I do. But I care more about being a woman of integrity than I do about pleasing others. I tell the truth now. If someone doesn’t want to hear the truth from me, then they may not be someone I want to keep around.
When I care more what I think of me than what other people think of me, I’m able to engage in direct communication. I’m not afraid that they’ll reject me because I know I’m living in my integrity. That means I’m able to have difficult conversations. Direct communication often means having difficult conversations — at least at the beginning. It gets easier. When communicating directly becomes a habit, you won’t have to have difficult conversations as often. People will know where you stand from the beginning.
Gossip is part of a pattern of interconnected thoughts and behaviors.
It’s not easy to “just stop gossiping.” Gossip is likely part of unconscious thoughts and behaviors that feed on each other. In order for me to stop gossiping, I first needed to come out of denial. Then I needed to understand: 1). what gossip is and isn’t, 2). what it did for me and to me, and 3). where the pattern came. These were all necessary for me to stop this dysfunctional and destructive behavior.
Intimacy requires direct communication.
The opposite of gossip is direct communication. This sometimes involves having uncomfortable conversations. Authentic, intimate relationships require direct communication. If you’ve avoided difficult or uncomfortable conversations your entire life, you may very well be gossiping.
Why “just stop gossiping” doesn’t work.
The idea that you can “just stop gossiping” doesn’t work. Stopping a deeply entrenched behavior pattern is not that simple. This is especially so when it’s a pattern you’ve been in denial about your whole life. How and why to stop takes time and understanding. This is why saying to someone “just stop gossiping” is not effective. It’s also why I’m writing this essay. I hope the time and understanding I’ve put into this process will help others. Perhaps it will make your journey to stop gossiping a bit easier than mine was.
For me, understanding gossip was key to being able to stop. I needed to understand what is and is not gossip, what it was doing for me and to me, as well as how it started. It also helped me to stop when I understood how much damage I was doing by gossiping — to myself and others.
What gossip is and isn’t.
I did some research to find out how gossip is defined, and how to stop. The information I got was helpful, but it wasn’t enough to overcome decades of this dysfunctional behavior. Gossiping is part of a constellation of dysfunctional behaviors and mindsets. These include focusing on others rather than yourself, having victim mentality, and lack of boundaries. These are all tied together, so influencing one of these things has an impact on the others. Thank goodness recovery teaches us to live our lives one day at a time!
Here’s what I learned about gossip — it’s a method of indirect communication. For example, if you say “Can you f-ing believe she did that to me?!” that’s gossip. You haven’t told her (whoever that is), “Hey, don’t do that to me.” You’re not communicating your feelings to the person who upset you. Nothing is going to change.
Another thing I learned from my research was that if a conversation about someone else is solution-oriented, it might not be gossip. “Excellent!” (my thinking went), “Let me talk about someone else and try to fix them!” That’s solution-oriented, right? So I went about trying to throw a solution into the mix of my gossip as a way to “not gossip.” It didn’t take long for me to see that that was not what was called for. This also showed me that wanting to stop wasn’t going to be enough.
What gossip is doing for you.
This realization helped me see something else about gossip that I hadn’t realized. It felt good. It felt really good to gossip. And I had no idea why. I started asking other people in recovery, “Why does it feel so fucking good to gossip??” I heard two things that permanently shifted my thinking about gossip.
1. You get to feel better about yourself when you gossip about others.
2. You get to blame other people for your problems.
Bam! That was it! Especially #2. I get to blame other people for my problems! When you continue to bitch and complain about someone, you’re holding them responsible for your difficulties. And it feels like you’re doing something about the problem. But you’re not. You’re magnifying the impact of the situation by continuing to talk about it. You’re also making it worse by taking no action on it. This reinforces the belief that you have nothing to do with the problem (i.e., victim mentality). And — it keeps you from seeing that you might have had anything to do with the situation. (Like not communicating directly with the person involved, i.e., gossiping).
What gossip is doing to you.
When you gossip, it feels like problem-solving. But it’s not. It actually makes problems worse. First, because you’re not doing something to change the situation. You’re talking about it. Second, because you’re not keeping the focus on yourself, which is where your power lies. You don’t have the ability to change others, but you can change yourself. If you’re constantly focused on others and what they did, you have no incentive to change.
You have no incentive to change because you think others are to blame for your problems. This is sometimes referred to as “learned helplessness.” This mentality is like the elephant who’s put on a chain as a baby and can’t break free because the chain is too strong. By the time it grows up all that’s necessary to keep it in place is a tiny rope that the elephant could easily break. It doesn’t even bother trying to break it because it “learned” that it couldn’t break the chain. But there’s no chain anymore! This is also called victim mentality, which I’ve written about here.
When you gossip, you repel people with good boundaries who are emotionally healthy. You alert them that you have no boundaries, and can’t be trusted with personal information. In this case, your lack of boundaries is usually about what’s your business and what’s not. Or perhaps what’s their business and what’s not.
Gossip also attracts people who are dysfunctional and emotionally unhealthy. Your gossiping behavior is familiar to them and seems “normal,” so they gravitate to you. This is a recipe for more problems rather than less.
Gossip prevents intimacy. I’ll say more about why that is below. I’d craved intimacy my whole life. Once I understood that gossip is basically an intimacy prevention strategy, I knew I’d have to stop. Understanding all these things got me farther and farther along in my journey to stop gossiping. It also helped me to learn how it started in the first place.
How my gossiping started.
Learning how this pattern started took some of the sting out of knowing that I’d been gossiping my whole life. When I looked at my family of origin, it became clear where I learned it. My parents didn’t sit me down and say, “Hey, let’s talk about people behind their backs!” No, it was much more subtle than that. In my family, you didn’t go directly to someone if you had a problem with them. You talked to everyone but that person! Which, btw, is gossip!
This was a communication pattern that was laid down in my family before I was ever born. There’s no way I could have grown up in my family without gossiping. I’m not blaming my parents for this. They didn’t know any better, just as I didn’t. They passed on what was taught to them. They simply didn’t know how to have intimate, authentic relationships with others.
An important lesson from my family.
All of these lessons caused me to reflect on something regarding gossip within my family. When I’d talk with my father, inevitably, the conversation would focus on my brother. This mainly consisted of my father bitching and complaining about him. Though I’d add a little here and there to commiserate with my father. At one point I said to my father, “You know Dad, it seems to me like all we talk about is him. It’s fine if we talk about him from time to time. But having him be the focus of all our conversations doesn’t feel right.”
I wasn’t quite sure what didn’t feel “right” there, it just didn’t. (This was years before recovery). Once we stopped talking about my brother, I realized I didn’t have anything to talk to my father about! I didn’t want him to know anything about me. There was no way I was going to be vulnerable with him and share about my life. Direct communication requires vulnerability, which is necessary for intimacy. This was how I realized that gossip prevents intimacy. I can see now that’s why my father and I did it — so we could keep the focus off of ourselves and not get too close.
How gossip prevents intimacy.
Let me break that down. There are a couple of reasons why gossip prevents intimacy. The first is that you’re not talking with the person in front of you about you or them. The second is that, on some level, that person knows you gossip and may be gossiping about them. They’re not likely to share personal things to develop true intimacy with you. I now know that my family was not at all interested in creating intimacy. They didn’t know how. The idea that we’d share our deepest feelings and fears was much too vulnerable. We weren’t equipped for that.
How I stopped gossiping
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from 12 step recovery is to keep the focus on myself. Right here, right now. This is because I’m the only one I can change. I used to operate as if other people were responsible for my problems, though this was subconscious. If other people are responsible for my problems, I’m screwed! Then there’s nothing I can do about those problems. But when I keep the focus on myself, I can find a solution. Keeping the focus on myself was essential for stopping the gossip.
One of the places where I gossiped most was at work. I gossiped about my boss for years. She didn’t follow through on things, was unreliable and late for everything. The thing is, she was like that from the first day I met her! I must have believed that if I bitched about her enough, she’d change. That sounds ridiculous now, but that’s clearly how I was operating. As if my complaining about her was going to change the situation. As I’m writing this, I realize that I subconsciously didn’t want it to change. Then I could no longer blame her for my problems. And “problems” were what my life was all about!
Because I’d been at my job longer than anyone else, I created a culture of gossip. It became customary for me and my colleagues to complain about her behind her back. Yet none of us ever went to her to discuss our concerns. We just stewed. And gossiped. For years. That means my gossiping didn’t just affect me or my boss, it affected our entire team. And the work we did. It also affected my reputation and that of my boss.
When I set about trying to stop gossiping, it was hard. I had to enlist the help of my closest colleagues. They all knew I was in recovery and trying to change my ways, so I asked for their help. I asked them to raise a finger if they heard me gossiping. This also gave them notice not to gossip in front of me. I also tracked my gossiping behavior in my nightly inventory. This helped sensitize me to situations where I’d be tempted to gossip. That way I could see the situation coming and commit to not gossiping.
The miraculous thing was, once I stopped gossiping about her so much, my resentment against her went almost entirely away! I was shocked! I realized, “OMG, I’m a huge part of the problem!” It was one thing for her to be unreliable, but I magnified the impact of her unreliability by talking about it all the time. With everyone.
The fact that my resentment against her almost disappeared was a revelation. This led to yet more changes in my behavior. One such change I now call “dragging the story with me.” I stopped dragging stories of woe with me everywhere I went.
For example, it used to be that if someone pulled out in front of me on my way to work in the morning, I’d bitch about it several times that day. What I learned from stopping gossiping was that talking repeatedly about a problem magnifies the problem! It’s bad enough to experience the drama of a near car accident. But to retell it repeatedly caused me to re-experience the situation over and over again! This was yet another insight as to how I’d been the source of many of my problems, or at least had been making things worse.
Now, if something difficult happens to me and I need to talk about it to process my feelings, I pick one person who’s emotionally healthy to process with. One person. This allows me to contain the information, instead of spreading it around like wildfire. Like gossip. It means I’m only talking about it once. If I later realize my feelings are not yet resolved, then I go back to that same person to talk about it. I don’t bring in any new people on the subject unless I really feel I need another perspective.
Containing the information is an example of using my boundaries. I’ve come to understand that I have both boundaries of self-containment, and boundaries of self-protection. Self-containment boundaries usually mean I keep personal information private, and only share with trusted others. In the past, I shared that info with anyone who’d listen, which typically meant people with no boundaries! In this case, boundaries of containment mean I don’t spread the info around to anyone and everyone. I contain it so as to stop exposing myself to the distress again and again.
I’ve realized over time that these boundaries of self-containment are also boundaries of self-protection. It protects me to keep private information private, and to stop sharing the drama of my life and reliving it. One might even say that I’ve stopped gossiping about myself. When I was complaining about things like drivers pulling out in front of me, I wasn’t being solution-oriented. I was just complaining and magnifying the problem.
The key to stopping gossip is direct communication.
The key to stopping was direct communication. I needed to learn to directly communicate my wants, needs, desires, difficulties and preferences to others. You can’t communicate directly with others if you’re not keeping the focus on yourself. That is, you have to know what you want, need and prefer. If you’re always focused on others and what they’re doing, you’re not going to know what you really want, need and prefer. Case in point — I thought I needed to talk about my boss behind her back! I was focused on her, not me.
I had to become willing to have difficult conversations with others. That means communicating directly with the person involved about my concerns. It means not communicating with uninvolved others about my concerns.
When others start the gossip.
Some of you may feel like you’re fine with not starting gossip, but aren’t sure how to handle it when someone else tries to gossip with you. Here’s something you can say when someone shares gossip with you — Why are you telling me this? This will cause them to think about why they’re telling you this thing. It will also give you a moment to pause. That moment to pause can mean the difference between sliding down that slippery slope of gossip and moving on to more important things. Like keeping the focus on yourself. And building authentic, healthy relationships with others.
Recap of my process to stop gossiping.
I started by coming out of denial and recognizing that I was gossiping. Then I did research to learn what it was and wasn’t. I came to understand how toxic gossip is to myself and others, which caused me to commit to stopping. I was able to do that by keeping the focus on myself. This enabled me to communicate directly with those involved in difficult situations. I stopped communicating with uninvolved others. Enlisting the help of others helped me greatly in changing this life-long dysfunctional pattern. Tracking my behavior nightly sensitized me to it so I could then see it coming and (eventually) stop.
Keeping the focus on yourself and direct communication are foundational parts of having healthy boundaries, and an emotionally stable life. I’m living proof that it’s possible to go from being a lifelong gossiper to someone who communicates directly. While difficult, this change has been transformative.
If you like this article, you might want to check out this page on my website that has a bunch of free resources for those who need help with relationships.