Permission To Be Negative

Positive-thinking isn’t for everyone. For me, it often feels like a chore. I feel as though I need to constantly monitor every thought that goes through my head, then ask myself, “Is this positive? Am I sending out ‘good vibes’?”

It takes up a lot of unnecessary energy to always be positive – and I’m not convinced it’s the healthiest way to go about life. Worst of all, I just feel like a damn phony every time I plaster on a smile knowing I’m really in a bad mood.

Why can’t I permit myself be in a bad mood every now and then?

Sometimes shit happens: I get upset, I get frustrated, I get angry, I get jealous. These are a part of being human, so why shouldn’t I be allowed to feel them from time-to-time?

I feel that to live any other way is self-denial. We should train ourselves to see the good and the bad as two parts of the same whole. Emotional intelligence requires that we listen to and accept all emotions, because each can have something valuable to offer. Emotions are a resource, not a crutch.

This is what has always bothered me about the positive movement. So many people in it are all “POSITIVE POSITIVE POSITIVE!” They force a smile on their face and speak with a superficially chirpy tone at all times. I can’t help but think of it as a way of ignoring reality. When something negative happens, I imagine they push it deep down into their soul, then go on their merry ways.

It’s not healthy. When the allure of a positive mindset overtakes our willingness to accept reality – there are consequences. Take, for example, the recent blood on the hands of The Secret. One of the leaders of the “Law of Attraction” movement, James Arthur Ray, was recently found guilty for negligent homicide due to 2 deaths and 18 hospitalizations of attendees during his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat. The participants apparently went 2 days without water and were then left alone in a desert on a “vision quest.” The circumstances were dangerous and outrageous, but Ray believed that the power of belief could overcome them. He was wrong, and real damage was done.

When you are dehydrated and you have a thirst for water, that is not a figment of your imagination, but a feeling that reflects your reality.

A similar thing can be said for other feelings and emotions. When we feel sadness after the death of a loved one, or fear when our lives are actually at stake, those are natural and rational reactions to those kind of events. Those feelings aren’t there to be ignored, but to be acknowledged and listened to.

We should permit ourselves to be negative because we never know when those negative feelings might be telling us something important.

Embracing your shadow every now and then.

Sometimes, I like to go a step beyond permission. Sometimes, I think it’s appropriate to even provoke “negative feelings” in order to express them and release them (in a healthy and safe way). I think acknowledging the “lows” also gives us a greater appreciation of the “highs.”

I think that’s why people enjoy the occasional thrills of a roller coaster or scary movie. Sometimes, it’s exciting to be afraid. Sometimes, it’s healthy to be sad. I think it helps remind us the full-range of being human. I think it helps us exercise feelings that we may sometimes suppress or avoid.

That’s why I like a lot of provocative movies, music, entertainment, and art. It provides a healthy release for me. It gives me a chance to express the full-range of my character in a way that doesn’t harm myself or others.

Why do people like watching movies such as Requiem for a Dream, or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or Saw IV? Rarely does anything “good” happen in these movies, instead most of it is people’s lives being ruined. Yet people like to live vicariously through these movie characters, even if it is a situation they would never want to be in for real.

Perhaps it is just “neat” to be able to share an experience even though it’s not really happening to us. Or maybe it’s deeper than that. Maybe it somehow leaves us with a newer appreciation for life.

When I think of these things I am reminded of the Stoic concept of “negative visualization.” The Stoics would often imagine themselves in worst cast scenarios because they found that it made them more grateful for what they do have in life, not what they don’t.

In the same way, I think watching movies that take us to an extreme can actually provide us with a new balanced and healthy perspective on our own lives.

And I believe this also applies to other forms of art or personal expression: music, writing, poetry, sculpting, photography, dancing, cooking, fashion – anything that helps you with that emotional release. When people give themselves an avenue to constructively channel negative emotions, they can better navigate through the ebbs and flows of life.

The Yin-Yang Theory of Mental Health: Don’t ignore the ebbs.

The key here is to not ignore the ebbs. They are really there. Sometimes life has difficulties, sometimes we feel down. These aren’t aspects of life we should or can avoid.

Instead, we can learn how to better manage through these difficulties, perhaps even embrace them (to some extent) by seeing them as a means of growth, character-building, and balance.

I sometimes think of this as the yin-yang theory of mental health. The truth is that the dichotomy between “negative” and “positive” is really illusory. They aren’t separate. They are two sides of the same river, and you can’t have one side without the other. They come together.

This idea of “interdependence” is best depicted in the symbol of a Yin-Yang:

A yin-yang symbolizes many of the dualities we experience throughout life. Notice how even in white, there is a bit of black; and even in black, there is a bit of white. This represents the interdependence between many dichotomies we experience throughout life.

Thought exercise: How can you define darkness without defining light? What about success or failure, life or death, happiness or suffering?

Through contemplation you’ll often find that these concepts aren’t separate, but in fact intrinsically interconnected. They are two parts of the same process. This holds true for most of the ebbs and flows we experience throughout life. We simply cannot have one without having the other.

(If you’re interested in this you may also be interested in my article: Depression: The Yin of Happiness).

My biggest point here is to not be so dismissive of your negative emotions. That can be a trap that many “positive thinkers” fall into, but what they don’t realize is that they are ignoring half of who they really are.

There is a great benefit in paying attention and acknowledging the full-range of what it means to be human. Embracing all sides of life often helps us to manage our expectations, by giving us a more balanced worldview, and consequently we become more satisfied with our lives as a whole (no matter what it has to throw at us).

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