It’s a magic pill that will solve all of our problems, it seems to say, from mental health, to money problems, physical health and lifestyle habits. We are told to, “Look on the bright side,” “Think positively,” “Cultivate gratitude,”…
While these can be helpful to help us correct gross imbalances of negativity, it isn’t actually the whole answer to a life well-lived.
Don’t get me wrong. I had jumped on the “positive thinking,” law of attraction lifestyle theory bandwagon along with everyone else. I worried that dwelling on things that were upsetting or participating in a conversation where we only expressed negative experiences and feelings was a transgression. I felt guilty.
A Danish psychology professor at Aalborg University named Svend Brinkmann once talked about this issue in an article on QZ.com about the new cultural stigma of “being negative.”
Basically, we are human, Brinkmann said. As such, we experience a wide range of emotions from day to day. What leads to stress is when we experience a natural reaction of sadness, frustration or anger and then censure and convince ourselves that we should only think or be “positive.”
We’ve come to equate “positive thinking” with emotional health. If we think more positively, we think that we will avoid depression or never get angry or do things we will regret later. Or that we just won’t ever feel or think “negatively.” We all want to avoid the sharp sting of unhappiness.
But we’ve become so uncomfortable around people experiencing fear, loss, loneliness, etc., that it becomes our job to help “turn that smile upside down” – even if that person is ourselves. Because no one wants to be around someone like that, right? We don’t want to “bring everyone else down.”
And therein lies the seeds of our unhappiness.
Emotions are essentially natural energetic reflexes, like a knee-jerk, that happen in our body in response to how our brains perceive what happens outside (and inside) of us. We really don’t have much control over those. Thoughts on the other hand, we have complete control over.
The paradox is that in our struggle to “think positively,” we have begun to talk or think negatively to ourselves about our own natural human responses to life experience. In truth, we have turned to disempowering our intuition, and putting ourselves down for “feeling” – well, anything other than total joy and happiness day in and day out.
The burden we carry around is the equation we believe there is between “thinking” positively and “feeling” happy. We’ve come to believe that if we are a little more stern with ourselves in thinking “positive,” we can wipe out feeling sad or lonely, overwhelmed or shamed.
If that hasn’t been working out too well for you, you’re not alone. So think about it in this way:
Life is a spectrum of emotions, and there is no such thing as a positive emotion or negative or “bad” emotion – unless we tell ourselves it is, and suffer on account of it. And don’t worry, you’re not the first person to fall into that trap. It seems uniquely human.
The Buddhist philosophy has long studied and philosophized on the difference between pain and suffering. Pain, they explain, is usually a physical or emotional sting. We all have them from time to time. Suffering, on the other hand, is the attitude toward or in how you interpret the pain. To accentuate the point, as the famous quote from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” illustrates, “… “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Feeling badly is not a sign that we are managing our lives badly: It simply means we are actually experiencing life. Conversely, we could be more cognizant in how we react to it.
So next time you feel not so positive, pat yourself on the back, ask for a foot rub, tell positivity to take a hike and ride the wave. Because you probably have a pretty darn good reason for feeling that way today. Showing yourself compassion in those down times is the quickest way to a positive, happy, balanced life.