“You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between”
– Johnny Mercer
In our culture positive thinking (and feeling) is highly prized.
We often describe our thinking and emotions as positive or negative, but this way of thinking and talking about them can set us up for a lot of suffering.
Our emotions are our internal signals and motivators, helping us to navigate our world. They are innate, part of the human package, tuned and refined over millions of years of evolution.
Categorising them as positive or negative can have a powerful effect on how we view them and how we experience them.
In everyday use the word ‘positive’ means: good, desirable, beneficial and right
On the other hand the word ‘negative’ means: bad, undesirable, detrimental and wrong.
How we think of something changes how we respond to it: if we meet someone who is good, desirable and right we will treat them quite differently to someone who is bad, undesirable and wrong.
There is nothing good or bad that thinking makes it so
– William Shakespeare
How we think of something in our internal world can have a big effect on our experience.
If we think of some emotions as positive, we may:
- crave them
- try to hang on to them when they start to go
- feel bad when they have gone
- like the way they feel
- think we should feel them
If we think of some emotions as negative, we may:
- avoid them
- try to stop them occurring
- feel bad when they are around
- not like the way they feel
- think that we should not feel them
As human beings we are designed to feel all these emotions and life guarantees that we will all feel them at some time or another.
Some of these emotions are very uncomfortable or even painful to experience, but if we are for some emotions or against others then we add extra layers of suffering onto an already difficult experience.
By making the emotions we like into first class citizens and the emotions we don’t like into second class citizens we set the scene for internal struggles.
In South Africa, the political system known as ‘Apartheid’ (from the Afrikaans word for separateness) separated people based on the colour of their skin. Under apartheid white people were ‘good’ and got the best treatment, black people were ‘bad’ and got the worst treatment. The apartheid system was clearly unjust and suffered from many internal conflicts until its dissolution in 1994.
Apartheid is usually thought of as a political system, but we can imagine an internal system of ‘Emotional Apartheid’ operating within ourselves where emotions are classified depending on whether they are ‘positive’ or ‘negative’.
In this ‘Internal State Of Apartheid’ positive emotions are welcome in your experience and negative emotions are not.
As long as your emotions are positive then they are free to stay and enjoy themselves.
In this ‘Positive Only’ state you are allowed and encouraged to feel good feelings, share your good feelings with others and post pictures on Facebook to show others just how happy your life is.
Unfortunately, positive feelings can change. When they start to fade you might try various methods to encourage them back or find new positive emotions to help counteract the negative feelings that might threaten your positivity.
When negative emotions show up (as they will from time to time) you might let them know they are not welcome or try to turn them away. If they hang around you might even try to suppress them or get rid of them.
Unfortunately these ‘negative’ emotions feel that they have rights too and want to be heard. The harder you try to silence them the louder they get. Suppression doesn’t work well and those negative emotions want to have their say.
All this emotional control and defence against the negative takes a lot of time and energy.
After a while you may even start to be afraid of those negative emotions.
This could also be a problem for your relationships with others. If the community or the society at large only value positive states then we might have to start to pretend to be much more positive than we are or we risk feeling shame or risking exclusion from the ‘positive’ community. Of course they might be struggling in the same way, but they can’t afford to acknowledge their difficulties or they will be seen to be a failed ‘positive’ state.
‘Emotional Apartheid’ can be mild or extreme.
As a therapist I spend a lot of time working with people who have feelings that are uncomfortable or painful (this is the distress of life).
That’s difficult enough, but they can add to their suffering by:
- trying to avoid feeling distress (even though this is a inextricable part of life)
- become afraid of the feelings they don’t want to feel.
- judging their feelings as wrong or shameful so that they feel bad about feeling bad
- resisting feelings that are perfectly appropriate in their situation
- trying to put on a ‘brave face’ so that no one notices how they are feeling.
- use huge amounts of energy and effort to manage what they don’t want to feel
All this adds to their stress and distress.
Is there a more helpful way of thinking about emotions?
If you think of something as positive it implies that it is positive at all times and in all contexts, likewise something negative is negative at all times and in all contexts.
Different times and places need different responses from us, our emotions are our internal responses to the outside and inside world that is always shifting and changing.
Some emotions are helpful in some situations and not in others.
If you come face to face with a Bengal Tiger in the jungle then I think it is perfectly appropriate to feel fear (and act on it). If you live in a country without dangerous spiders (as I do) it’s not very appropriate to feel overwhelming fear when you see an arachnid.
It’s perfectly appropriate to feel joy at a child’s wedding, it’s probably not appropriate to feel joy at their funeral.
Rather than to label a feeling positive or negative it is much more useful to ask ourselves (and others) “Is this feeling helpful or unhelpful in this situation?”
If we let go of the idea that feelings are positive or negative we can treat them without fear or favour as equal citizens having valuable functions, we can:
- feel our distress (even if it is uncomfortable) as well as our joy.
- lose our fear of our feelings
- accept how we feel with compassion and awareness
- feel what we feel in any situation and act appropriately on it if we need to
- be who we are however we are feeling knowing that everyone else is capable of feeling these feelings
- have more energy available to do what is important to us.
These feelings may be uncomfortable and you may want to find ways to be more at ease with them – this is where EFT and other techniques can be very helpful. Addressing these emotions with acceptance rather than aversion or clinging makes this a much easier process.
“Nonacceptance is always suffering, no matter what you are not accepting.
Acceptance is always freedom, no matter what you are accepting.”
– Cheri Huber