Why striving to always be positive is a negative

For a long time I’ve avoided negative feelings and emotions sensing that I should always be positive – that positivity is what people want – as if being positive means it’s more likely I’ll be liked, accepted. In doing this I’ve either denied or dwelled on those emotions with the unconscious belief that they were something that I shouldn’t feel. After all I had no reason to complain, to be worried or stressed, sad or anxious and therefore feeling bad brought with it a added sense of shame.

It’s only recently that I’ve started to realise how damaging this is. And perhaps even more importantly that I’m not alone.

Society has a tendency towards positivity – rejecting negativity with no in between. Whist I appreciate that it’s possible to be too negative and people who are overly negative are annoying and bring everyone down with them but there has to be a middle ground between the two where we can be authentic when we feel both positive and negative. As long as we strive to be positive all the time we unwittingly diminish the value of being authentic: simply being honest with ourselves as well as with those around us about how we’re feeling and being comfortable with not always being positive – it’s exhausting, it’s counterproductive and it’s making us ill.

As Brene Brown says what we seek in others in order to connect with them – is authenticity – being human – warts and all. Seeing others being authentic validates how we feel inside. Failing to be authentic causes others to withdraw from us which results in a sense of rejection, of disconnection from other people and human connection is one of the most important – if not the most important – aspects contributing to our sense of well being.

Brene Brown’s TED talk on The Power of Vulnerabilit

Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly

According to today’s psychologists our emotions are our body’s way of directing our attention toward something – perhaps a threat in our environment – or loss such as losing our home, livelihood or a loved one. Susan David suggests that we interpret our negative emotions as pieces of information that we can learn from and act on, essential pieces of information that help us to improve our situations somehow. And Jason Satterfield says that emotions are neither true nor false but rather helpful or harmful. It’s us who decide whether they’re helpful or harmful – it’s all about how we interpret them – and then how we respond.

Susan David’s book Emotional Agility

Susan David’s TED talk

Jason Satterfield’s Great Courses book on Cognitive Behavioural Psychology

Jason Satterfield talk on cognitive behavioural stress-reduction

The problem is that part of our brain hijacks the rest of the brain, and body, into an automatic fight, flight or freeze response (aka the stress response). According to Melanie Greenberg this involves anxious thoughts, brain chemicals and stress hormones and waves of emotion. And in order to effectively manage stress we need to calm the stress response and process those negative emotions. The challenge is that the purpose of the stress response is to alert us to threat in our environment, a danger that could be life threatening but short-lived. However the threats that we often perceive in modern life are multiple and ongoing such as losing our home or job, struggling financially and so on. This can result in a chronically active stress response that can leave us feeling burnt out at best and suffering from illnesses such as anxiety and depression disorders or heart disease.

According to Buddhist philosophy we seek or hold onto positive feelings and experiences in the hope that they’ll never end. In doing this we cause ourselves to suffer unnecessarily because when we avoid negative emotions such as sadness and pain we are denying the impact of natural and inevitable parts of life such aging, illness and death. This results in a double whammy of suffering because not only are we suffering from the life event itself but then we inflict further suffering on ourselves because instead of accepting this inevitable pain we try to avoid it and resist it. Buddha describes this self-inflicted suffering as being shot with two arrows. The first arrow we’re shot with is the illness or stressful situation we’re facing and the second is the arrow we shoot into our own foot because we hold on to emotion or avoid it completely rather than processing it. Melanie Greenberg says when we directly face and accept negative experiences, they move through us rather than getting stuck.

A few days ago I realised that negative emotions have always felt dramatic to me. I’ve been stuck in a cycle of ‘stress’ that builds up over time until I have a mini burn-out with migraines, as well as feelings of being overwhelmed and unable to cope, and sadness. This normally lasts a few days. I think this happens because my brain and body have to force me to stop, rest and take notice of what I’m feeling both physically and mentally because I ignore it for so long. As the popular philosopher and co-founder of the School of Life, Alan de Botton says in the following video – failing to acknowledge emotion causes us to feel depressed about everything when we should be feeling sad about a something.  In her book Emotional Agility – Susan David says denying and avoiding emotion causes its amplification rather than disappearance. I think I can relate to that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b197XOd9S7U

I am now firmly focussed on looking inside and on seeing and feeling the emotions that arise (I’ve been keeping an emotions diary for the last two weeks) and it doesn’t feel so dramatic.  I’m crying more often and feeling that it’s OK, in fact that it’s a good thing because I’m processing emotions and I although I sometimes feel drained I always feel better for it.

Mindfulness, meditation and yoga help me no end with all of this. There is now a lot of research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience that shows the benefits as well as an ever growing database of empirical research. Personally, I’ve discovered the value of sitting and doing nothing (or lying down if that’s how I feel) for as short a time as a minute (the Headspace app does a 1 minute SOS guided meditation) to a couple of hours. I no longer rush from one thing to the next, my pace has slowed, nor do I feel that I have to be out and about all the time or have the TV on in order to distract from the mass of accumulating thoughts and feelings. Instead I enjoy quiet time with myself and my feelings or thoughts or guided meditation or relaxation if I feel like it. I don’t get caught up in my thoughts, daydreams or ruminations anymore. I feel happier and more present and in control of my thoughts, feelings and behaviour which is very empowering. Rather than the niggling self doubt I felt a few years ago – I genuinely believe anything is possible – with a bit of work and some true introspection.

 

4 thoughts on “Why striving to always be positive is a negative”

  1. There is still strong evidence for a positive outlook as you say. Recent research also shows that people who perceive syress as a challenge to be overco.e rather than an obstacle that cannot be overcome thrive despite dealing with a lot stress. I think there’s still a balance to strike between allowing ourselves time to process and release negative emotions and to be aware of what’s going on in our bodies and minds and then channel energy into a positive outlook. Not easy to do mind you but a good aim to have. Phew! We’re complex us human beans!

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  2. Interesting article. A point that definitely needs airing.
    It echos my mum’s words as she railed against the ‘positive thinking brigade’, while undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Although, the benefit of a positive outlook in terms of mental and physical health have been long known, she felt that there was pressure on her to be positive. To be bravely battling cancer, all the time. Which left her unable to express her feelings of fear, anger and sadness when they arose. She told me about a conversation with a colleague, who told her to keep her chin up, or she wouldn’t get better. It made her feel as if the cancer was therefore her fault.
    We need re-education!

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    1. Most definitely. So we all played a part in causing your mum to suffer unnecessarily on top of the inevitable suffering due to having cancer. I’m looking into the idea of ‘holding space’ at the moment. I’ve found a really beautiful article and will blog once I’ve decided what other resources to combine it with. What we all need is guidance on how to provide support for people at times of need so that we don’t slip into cliches that are often just about allowing ourselves to avoid our own discomfort rather than offering genuine support when people most need it.

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  3. I see positive and negative emotions as the yin and yang. They, to a degree, define each other. They are pointers to actions and entities that help or hinder our motion on a particular trajectory. They also add dynamism into our lives and the depth to which we allow ourselves to identify with them, outlines the amplitude of our “emotional wavelength”. Whilst it is unhealthy to be continuously “carried away” with our emotions, I would say that we should try to make life a bit more art than science. Let’s appreciate the experience of “feeling” and grow from it, in whatever way possible.

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