Much of our lives focus on positive emotions. You only have to flick through a magazine or turn to social media to see messages of positivism screaming out from the page – but why do we put such onus on the importance of positive feelings? Granted, it is encouraging and supportive to see affirmations of positivity punctuating a society that is over-flowing with negative behaviours – but are we then placing too much emphasis on positivity, to the detriment of our own negative emotions?
Recently, I came across a powerful TED Talk by psychologist Susan David, “Why It’s Good to Embrace Negative Feelings”, where she discusses how the manner in which we cope with our emotions has the power to shape every aspect of our lives.
Society as it stands, encourages us to look at the world and ourselves through rose-tinted glasses and the message of positive thinking spans far and wide. However, Susan argues that allowing ourselves to embrace the “bad stuff” – from sadness and anger to jealousy, and even grief – enables us to be more fulfilled in our lives, than if we ignore these emotions and categorise them as “negative”.
Personally, I think that Susan has a point. Encouraging an emotion that is likely to send us into turmoil isn’t something we would ever consider doing, choosing instead to tuck those emotions away in a nice little box to deal with later – but rarely do we revisit them. Susan suggests that “when we push aside normal emotions to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be”. Such emphasis on positive thinking, leaves us lacking in the relevant qualities we need to conquer the things in life that might be painful to us: loss, betrayal, disappointment, rejection and ignorance, to name a few.
Susan’s patients tell her (and I’m sure that we’re all familiar with this too), that they “just want this feeling to go away”. But surely, isn’t part of living to feel? “I understand,” Susan says to these patients. “But you have dead people’s goals.”
“Only dead people never get unwanted or inconvenienced by their feelings. Only dead people never get stressed, never get broken hearts, never experience the disappointment that comes with failure. Tough emotions are part of our contract with life.”
Positive attitudes are not hard to come by, especially now that the self-love, body image and self-care movements are integrated in society – but I worry that we don’t take care of our negative emotions well enough for us to have emotional stability.
Susan’s parting gift, is to tell us that “discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life”. Let that sink in for a moment. “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life,” she continues, “you don’t get to have a meaningful career, or raise a family, or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort.”
For me, that’s the point.
Without discomfort, we wouldn’t be able to challenge.
Without discomfort, we wouldn’t be able to push ourselves.
Without discomfort, we wouldn’t know when the good times really are.
Without discomfort, we wouldn’t know if we were making a change in the world.