The Positive Power of Negative Thinking
In a culture constantly telling us all to be positive all the time, is there value in negative thinking?
We all know that endlessly positive person- the person who sees it as their inherent duty to see the flip-side of others' misery. When you are not someone for whom the silver lining is always apparent (or even necessary), you may find yourself becoming irked by their incessant cheeriness and then scolding yourself for being such a grouch. Hold off on the self-criticism here- perhaps it's time to challenge the notion that positivity is always the best way. Here's why, in my humble opinion.
In ancient Chinese philosophy, yin and yang describes the interconnectedness of light and dark; that shadow simply can not exist without light. There is no 'better' or 'worse' assigned to either side, rather that perfection arises from the acceptance of and balance between the two. Emotional balance is about the glass being both half full AND half empty. You see, an endless optimist fails to acknowledge the emptiness, which gives weight to the concept that empty is somehow bad.
Although we all experience a myriad of emotions each day (I can experience about thirty different feelings when stuck in a traffic jam, for example, from furious and indignant to hopeless and despairing), there are, in fact, a mere FOUR principle (authentic) emotions available to us: anger, sadness, joy and fear. Every other feeling is an extension or elaboration of one of these.
In order to be truly emotionally balanced you need to be allowed and able to feel all of your authentic feelings: this is where the power of negative thinking comes in.
The aforementioned eternal optimists deny themselves and those around them the opportunity to feel, recognise, acknowledge and express the authentic feelings of sadness, anger and fear. By denying three-quarters of your emotional capabilities you have no chance of intrinsic growth or emotional balance. Have you ever felt sad and reached out to another person to express your sadness, only to receive a bombardment of 'look on the bright side,' 'cheer up. it may never happen,' or other such well-intended but meaningless responses? Can you recall how you felt, to not have your sadness acknowledged or heard, but carelessly plastered over instead? In my experience, rather than feeling 'cheered up', I feel as though it isn't okay for me to feel sad; I either then retreat from reaching out to people, or force myself to 'pull myself together'- after all, no one wants to be around a misery guts, do they? And that sadness doesn't go anywhere- unexpressed, our emotions fester away inside of us causing mental and physical pain and illness.
Moving on from targeting those for whom optimism is a way of life; let's take a look at ANGER. Often considered a negative emotion because of its connotations with aggression, violence and uncontrolled outbursts, I personally view anger as a great motivator and instigator of boundaries. Many of us were scolded as children for displaying anger and so culturally we have evolved with the perception that anger is fruitless and must be suppressed. Yet anger is the very reason that I am on my journey to becoming a Transactional Analyst. One August afternoon a few years ago, I joined a queue of other wannabe counsellors at a local college, having been given a time slot to discuss the practicalities of the impending Diploma course with one of the course tutors. I had booked a day off of work, which was no mean feat in itself. On arrival at the college I was met with chaos; no one seemed able to tell me where to queue for the counselling Diploma course and I was sent in all directions before someone assured me that this particular line was the one I needed. Two hours later, trying to control my rising irritation, I was ushered forward, only to be rudely informed that the course for which I had come all this way to sign up for was not, in fact, running this year. I stormed home in a fury, angry about my wasted time and my loss of earnings- deeply disappointed that my dream of finally training to be a counsellor was suddenly take away from me. Instead of mourning my loss, accepting my fate and moaning to all and sundry for years to come, I decided to channel my anger in to action. The negative energy rushing through my body enabled me to remain focused for the several hours that it took to find another college, another course and an available place on said course. Transactional Analysis is a different journey than the one I had set out to embark upon that August afternoon and one that holds no regrets for me- not least because the experience taught me about the value of my anger.
The story above also highlights my final point in this article about the positive power of thinking negatively: I DID NOT GIVE UP.
I know many people whose life philosophy is to surrender to the universe- to give in to your fate and not to waste energy fighting a decision made by a higher power. For me, reclaiming my own power holds more gravitas. In sickness, it is the people who fight their diagnosis every step of the way whom have the greatest chance of healing. Some of the most impressive people in this world have been people that refuse to admit defeat: Stephen Hawkins made a fool out of ALS; Katie Piper became a philanthropist and spokeswoman after her life was almost taken by an acid attack. Both were told 'these are your limitations now,' and both stuck their fingers up to limits. In his acclaimed book 'When the Body Says No,' eminent psychiatrist and physician Gabor Mate talks about the power of saying no, and how, without the boundaries that are initially set through negative process, we become victims, powerless over our own lives.
Fear is another area for reassignment, while we're at it. I would consider myself a fundamentally anxious person; when faced with a potentially scary situation such as a job interview or performing in front of large crowds, I will often spend the entire night before the event going over all of the possible negative outcomes in my mind. An optimist might simply believe that they will do well (as well they might); they might tell me that worrying won't achieve anything. I beg to differ. You see, thinking negatively allows me to consider solutions for almost every eventuality. I feel more prepared than if I simply choose to believe I will succeed. In this instance, negativity transforms anxiety in to action: fear becomes your greatest weapon against failure.
In conclusion, if you are one of life's eternal optimists, your intentions are beautiful- yet the reality of refusing to feel and see sadness and anger in yourself and others results in imbalance and repression. When you notice 'negative' feelings rising up inside of you, give them space and time to emerge. Feel them. Express them authentically, in a way that doesn't seek to blame or shame another person. These emotions are as much a part of you as joy is- open your heart to their power. When someone reaches out to you, expressing sadness or anger, see what happens when you react in a way that embraces their experience rather than trying to erase it. Try saying something like 'I can hear how sad you are feeling right now. Things are really tough for you at the moment, aren't they?' You might just be amazed by the difference it makes, to the other and to yourself.
Our so-called negative emotions are powerful and capable of driving us forward to achieve great things, just as long as we embrace them and give them as much air-time as we give to joy.