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.

 

We don’t allow ourselves to feel let alone share how we feel and it’s harming us

For as long as I can remember I’ve struggled with ‘stress’ or at least that’s what I’ve always called it. I’ve definitely experienced stress possibly some anxiety and probably some depression. It was never diagnosed but then I never told anyone about it. Perhaps there was nothing to diagnose. Nevertheless I was hurting and I couldn’t tell my doctor or those I was closest to – my family or my friends. I didn’t feel I could tell anyone perhaps because I hadn’t heard anyone else talking about it. I think I felt like a failure, ashamed, inadequate because I felt like this when no one else seemed to. I remember asking myself why I was lacking confidence, self-worth when those around me were all confident and able to get involved. I felt I had little of value to offer my family, friends, community – the world. I was the only one who felt like this which meant it wasn’t normal. That I wasn’t normal.

What was wrong with me? I’d had a good upbringing. We weren’t rich but we weren’t poor. We’d always had the space and freedom to play. I have fond memories at the swimming pool with my dad and of building dens in the woods with my mum. My parents were educated and I had help with school work when necessary. Meals were cooked from scratch and with love. Every bite of bread we ate was kneaded and baked by my mum’s hands.

The only thing we didn’t have was emotional honesty and openness; and this was through no real fault of our own. Our society doesn’t allow it. And it’s hurting us.

And so I went on alone struggling on and off with stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, whatever it was until I eventually figured out that my problem was all about confidence and that I needed to start facing my fears in order to become more confident. This worked on the whole but of course I still hadn’t talked about any of these experiences and still wasn’t really talking about my feelings. I thought on and off about therapy for years but always told myself that it was too expensive and used that as an excuse to continue avoiding rather than facing my emotions.

Over the last few years I realised I was stuck in a perceptual cycle of accumulating ‘stress’ until I’d get to a point where I felt I couldn’t cope and would collapse in exhaustion and sadness and often with headaches and migraines when I’d be forced to stop and rest but then the cycle would begin again. In 2017 I was also waking up repeatedly at night due to pain in my hips and sides with no clue as to what was causing it.

“So we grow depressed about everything because we can’t feel sad about something. We can no longer sleep, insomnia being the revenge of all the many thoughts we’ve omitted to process in the day.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b197XOd9S7U&t=5s

In September I decided enough was enough and it was time to face this thing and so I’ve been going to weekly therapy sessions since then. It’s integrative therapy (a mixture of psychoanalysis, relational therapy and CBT) and it has helped me no end. All I’ve done so far is talk. We haven’t peeled back layer upon layer of my life nor have we done any CBT. I’ve just talked… and talked… and talked… I’ve also cried. In fact I cried so much when I was off work over Christmas and New Year that I got headaches and I thought it’d never stop. I’ve talked about things that I’ve never talked to anyone about before and have finally been able to really feel them and to let them go.

In the beginning I went with lists of things i wanted to talk about until my therapist mentioned just ‘sitting with how it feels’ as an alternative to the lists and organisation (ie need to control) and so I started to do just that. So now I’m trying to focus on how I’m feeling during therapy but also in my daily meditation and anytime I notice I am or have been feeling something.  It’s helped me to open up to family, to friends as well as to colleagues at work. I think it’s enabled me to start writing this blog – I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. In engaging with therapy (talking) I’ve created a space for myself to explore my emotions properly and to take the time I need to do that. I’ve started to recognise different emotions rather than labelling everything as stress so I’m starting to see sadness, disappointment, anger, frustration, guilt, shame and so on whereas before it was all one amorphous and inaccessible mass I called ‘stress’. I’m already seeing how this is affecting my awareness of how I think, feel and behave. I’m gaining emotional intelligence but I’ve got a long way to go yet.

I’m going to continue the focus on my emotions as well as talking to my therapist and being more emotionally open with family and friends so that I can grow and flourish. In return I am also learning how I can hold space for others because whilst they are supporting me on my journey and listening to me as I talk I also need to be able to do the same for them. I also need to give out the right signals to others so that they know I’m someone they can talk to, and rely on.

Is positivity how we should judge strength of character?

Society tells us that positive emotions are OK (as long as you don’t go too over the top or show off too much, of course) but negative emotions are not to be shown let alone shared. To be ‘normal’ is to be happy and smiling at all times and so we tell each other to “keep a stiff upper lip” and when someone manages to appear contained or positive when their situation means that they must be suffering inside we admire them for being stoical

“If you say that someone is a stoic, you approve of them because they do not complain or show they are upset in bad situations.” (Collins dictionary)

When people do show their true emotions we say they’re being over emotional or that they lack self control. Of course crying’s not allowed and if you do you’re a cry baby. And perish the thought that a boy or a man should ever show emotion because they’re likely to be told to man up because big boys don’t cry and if you do you’re crying like a girl.

What kind of messages are we giving each other? What kind of messages are we giving our children? What kind of messages are we giving ourselvesWe need to change the message.

In her compelling TED talk psychologist Susan David says that a third of people judge themselves for having negative emotions and therefore push those emotions to the side (she calls this bottling). Another tendency is to brood obsessively on our feelings where we get stuck inside our own heads and feel victimised by events that happen around us even if they really have nothing to do with us. She calls these responses emotionally rigid and encourages us instead to practice emotional agility. She’s written an entire book on the subject. It’s a surprisingly easy and very informative read. She very carefully avoids scientific language and explains everything in lay terms.

“Normal, natural emotions are now seen as good or bad. And being positive has become a new form of moral correctness. People with cancer are automatically told to just stay positive. Women, to stop being so angry. And the list goes on. It’s a tyranny. It’s a tyranny of positivity. And it’s cruel. Unkind. And ineffective. And we do it to ourselves, and we do it to others.”

“I found that a third of us — a third — either judge ourselves for having so-called “bad emotions,” like sadness, anger or even grief. Or actively try to push aside these feelings. We do this not only to ourselves, but also to people we love, like our children — we may inadvertently shame them out of emotions seen as negative, jump to a solution, and fail to help them to see these emotions as inherently valuable.”

Whether brooding or bottling it’s damaging. We’re failing to use the information our emotions are showing us to our advantage and respond in an agile and intelligent way. Instead we’re burying them or obsessing over them and holding on to them when we should be processing them and letting them go – releasing ourselves from them. In holding onto them we cause our minds and our bodies unnecessary stress and also give the message to those around us that this is the appropriate and expected behaviour.  As with my own example this messy mass of buried emotions becomes indiscernible and an increasingly heavy load to carry around with us. And it impacts every aspect of our life and the people around us.

It’s time to show up to ourselves and each other and to do so authentically. Only then will we fulfill our potential and achieve great things both individually and together.

https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/293825/emotional-agility/
emotional-agility