, Psy.D., LP

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Embrace Negativity

Why Being “Positive” Might Be Bad For You

Have you noticed the cultural pressure to “Be Positive” or “Be Strong” or “Focus on the Good”?

It’s as if we think that acknowledging or empathizing with painful experiences inadvertently creates more of them.

I hear it all the time.

“I would never do therapy,” someone said to me disdainfully, “All that focus on bad feelings and old stories will simply create more of them in my life.  I don’t want to attract negativity like that.” 

Or this, “I don’t want to talk about the trauma from my childhood because I’m stronger than that and don’t want to be a victim.”  

Even in NVC-style practice groups, where we practice being present to emotions as a first step in connecting, people sometimes try to make each other “feel better” or to “focus on more positive feelings and needs” in their attempts to help.

We are afraid that by turning towards emotional pain that we are somehow inviting more of it.

We fear that feeling the disappointment and hurt that arises in life may get interpreted as weakness.

We believe that the best way to help others is to get them “out” of their “negative” feelings.

But Be Careful: An over-focus on positivity can be a subtle form of denial, repression and avoidance. 

So called “negative emotions” often carry life-serving messages, and suppressing or ignoring them can increase stress and more dis-ease.

Avoiding how we feel can be a way of resisting life.  Willfully looking the other way when something arises within us is yet another way of working against ourselves; being at war with ourselves.  

  • Yes, sometimes re-telling a story over and again with no real connection to metabolizing or releasing it, may entrench the very thinking and feeling habits that you are trying to shift – and sometimes, it serves a profound AHA moment that allows someone to finally release an old narrative.
  • Yes, sometimes pulling out to a broader perspective and resourcing yourself with a reminder of all that is good in your life can be supportive – and sometimes it can feel like a minimizing, dismissing or abandoning of someone’s lived experience. 
  • Yes, sometimes asking about someone’s feelings, inquiring about their needs can be supportive – and sometimes that strategy promotes more mistrust. 

We’re invited to get present to whatever is arising in the moment if we seek  accurately attuned responses in any given relationship or context.

“Bad” feelings included. They just want our presence.

At any time we can choose to open to life, or to defend against it. To expand our capacity to feel and love, or to constrict our capacity to feel and love.

Perhaps it’s more helpful to think about feelings as side-effects or symptoms of a deeper truth: they are important indicators of something important happening in the wider system of your soul and self.

Emotions provide data about our needs, about the things we value, about the things we want to move towards and the things we want to move away from.

  • Lonely feelings may tell us about our desire for companionship and community. 
  • Sad feelings may tell us about our need for mourning, grieving and honoring loss. 
  • Frustrated feelings may tell us about our desire to become more aligned with ourselves and our desire for ease or simplicity. 

Develop a loving relationship with your feelings: all of them.

There are no ugly feelings.

They simply want to deliver an important message, draw your attention to an important internal experience, and then move on.

Give them each a name, greet them with tenderness, and ask yourself what message and wisdom they bring you about the state of your deeply universal human needs.

Let’s practice this week: 

Develop a broader literacy of feelings and needs using these sheets! 

Each day this week choose a few new words to work into your vocabulary!  My words this week will include dazzled, mellow and wistful.

How about you?

Let me know how it goes for you by joining in the conversation below!

5 thoughts on “Why Being “Positive” Might Be Bad For You

  1. Scott B says:

    A powerful post which struck a chord for me. Absolutely loved the Ted Talk on emotional agility from Susan David. Brilliant!

    Thanks for another gift Yvette!

    1. Yvette Erasmus says:

      Thanks so much Scott! I always love knowing when things resonate with people! I loved Susan David’s talk too!

  2. I appreciate how you presented some unintended consequences of a person’s behavior. Could you provide an example of what would promote more mistrust as described in the example below?

    “Yes, sometimes asking about someone’s feelings, inquiring about their needs can be supportive – and sometimes that strategy promotes more mistrust.”

    Thanks Yvette!

    1. Yvette Erasmus says:

      Hey Dan! I love your question! When people learn a new skill (for example, in NVC people learn to focus upon and ask people’s feelings and needs and are taught that this is the “right” way to express empathy) they sometimes enthusiastically apply this new “rule” to all situations indiscriminately. They begin start asking about other people’s feelings and needs in all sorts of situations because they are trying to meet their strong desire to connect with other and understand others, but at times can lose attunement and sensitivity to the cues that someone else might be putting out. Explicitly talking about what we are feeling and needing can feel vulnerable and intimate to people, and I’d recommend waiting for an invitation or cue or permission to “go there” with people before pushing for that level of conversation depending upon the context. If I am at work, and really wanting to stay at the strategy level of the conversation, and someone keeps pushing for what I am feeling and needing, I might become increasingly wary of that person because instead of working with me, I might perceive them as trying to lead me somewhere that I am not consenting to go to … How does this all land on you? Bring up more questions? I’d love to know if this clarifies what I mean or not?

  3. Yep, got it. Your example helped with clarity indeed.

    It also brought up in me the idea of intelligence. In my experience, when some states that someone is “really intelligent”, they typically seem to be referring to the type of smarts that could be reflected in a 4.0 grade average in school or measured in an IQ test. What you just described feels more like a great example of emotional intelligence (which I’m no expert in), but feels important in good communication.

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