Of all the great myths of contemporary life, one of the most toxic is positivity. It says: there are negative and positive emotions, and only the positive ones are worth feeling, having, expressing.
Here’s why it’s really, really bad for us.
If you bury your negative emotions, they don’t magically disappear. Instead of being directed inwards, they are usually just directed outwards.
Have a desperate craving to fix the world? That’s probably because you’re projecting your sadness onto others. Have a constant lingering suspicion of people? That’s probably because you’re projecting your disappointment into others. Always wondering why no amount of money, respect, power is ever enough? Probably because you’re projecting your sense of inadequacy and unworthiness into people.
Now bigger problems begin. You wonder: “why are these people always so sad, angry, worried? There must be something wrong with me!”. Now depression, self condemnation, shame, are added to the original pain.
There’s nothing wrong with you or them. You’re just reading reality wrong. But now having genuine relationships, success, enjoyment, will be elusive. Guess what you’ve really done by not feeling your pain? Created more of it.
You’re stuck on a wheel of suffering. So how do you get off?
Negative emotions are signals that change is needed. Change is natural. What is unnatural is stasis.
Nowhere is the myth of positivity more of a holy scripture than America. I need to spend half the year in Europe because I just can’t take America’s fake desperate smiles after a while. Sorry. They only just tell me that more suffering is being created with every flash of the teeth.
In ths UK, being a little depressed is a way of life. In France, being sour is part of joie de vivre. In Germany, being dour is a national requirement. And so on. All these places are much more emotionally honest, developed, accepting, than America.
America’s young people should be angry. They’ve been abused in terrible ways. They have little future. But they’re not. They’re cynical, apathetic, resigned, afraid to vent the anger and bitter disappointment that is necessary for a human to feel given their plight.
Why? The myth of positivity. When positivity is treated like an inviolable totem, lives get stuck. No change is possible. Here, an entire society is stuck, trapped, because pain has become equated with a sin, crime, a violation of the social norm of positivity.
If you’re in pain, there must be something wrong with you, not society, people, life, right? Wrong.
But that’s what the myth of positivity says, and thus it absolves society of responsibility for people, just as it absolves people of responsibility to love, forgive, accept, grow. Hence, stasis.
Negative emotions give us great gifts.
The gift of anger is rebellion. The gift of disappointment is defiance. The gift of sadness is compassion. The gift of grief is love.
There is no motivation for the human being to undertake any of these in the absence of negative emotions. They are risky, uncertain, dangerous, uncomfortable. It is the shadows in us that teach us what the light is. So when we repress our negativity, we leave ourselves less capable of offering the world the very best in us.
So what should we do with our negative emotions?
First, stop calling them negative. Don’t label your emotions. Why are you overthinking it?
Second, feel them until they’re through. Really experience all of, every inch in, them. Then there is a sense of catharsis. They have left you, and their journey out of you is like a river carving a valley into a mountain. The valley of your grief is how deeply you can love.
Third, befriend them, don’t reject them. Pop psych gurus say “process” them. I don’t like that word. It’s inaccurate. You’re not a computer, they’re not a program, and there are no mathematical steps involved.
Just follow them. The river’s carving a valley. Where does the river begin? Just see that place. Maybe it’s the cold glacier of not being loved enough. Maybe it’s the desert of abandonment. Find that place and…
Let the river flow.
Don’t try to stop your pain. Your pain makes you you.
Dam the river and the valley will grow arid and desolate. The ocean in you will dry up.
You need your pain. You need it defy, rebel, imagine, build, create, forgive, accept, grow, love.
Show me a person without pain, and I’ll show you a shallow self-involved narcissist.
What are you doing? You’re just watching the river of your pain flowing into the ocean.
See how beautiful it is? The water shimmers. The lines curve. Hidden in its shadows and depths are all your greatest gifts.
Pain isn’t suffering. Suffering is the absence of pain.
We turn pain into suffering by trying to desperately eject it, reject it, get rid of it.
Suffering happens when we believe our pain is bad. We may believe that our pain is bad because we’re the only ones, because we’re alone, or because – guess what? – people create a myth that says pain is bad. A myth of positivity.
Condemning and berating ourselves for our pain is what turns it into suffering. Real agony, that torments us deep in our souls. Without self-condemnation, pain is a blade that cuts us open, not a sickle that cuts us down.
If we see that pain isn’t bad, that it contains the truest and greatest parts of us, those that let us really contribute lives of great worth to the world, then we have taken the sting out of pain. Now it is the price of an immeasurable gain, not an empty loss.
The truest definition of happiness isn’t no pain. How can you love, imagine, dare, risk that way?
True happiness is seeing the profound beauty, joy, grace, truth in your pain. Then it is not just empty, hollow, meaningless, suffering, bitter and cruel.
Now you are learning the greatest disciplines of all. Compassion and understanding for the self. Instead of condemning and berating itself for your pain, now you can accept it, celebrate it, see the beauty, joy, truth in it. It’s your pain that is always teaching you how to be beautiful, true, defiant, gentle, wise, kind.
Now you can see yourself in pain, and gently reach out, telling yourself that it is OK, worthy, part of this little life, the experience that turns emptiness into love. Instead of hating, abusing, hurting yourself for it.
That is self compassion, self empathy, self acceptance. You are learning to go beyond suffering now. There is always pain. But now you know what to do with your pain.
Now that these are really fully born in you, you can offer them to the world.
And that is how you put an end to suffering.