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Lubjana dragon

Here Be Dragons

Creative Commons LicensePhoto credit: Leshaines123
What do you think: Can negative emotions be positive?

Herein lies the likely reason for feelings…negative feelings are a “here-be-dragons” sensory system that alarms you, telling you unmistakably that you are in a win-lose encounter… [Negative] feelings about a person or an object get us to avoid it.

— Martin Seligman

Even as a kid, I didn’t like milk. But it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that it dawned on me – thirty minutes after I drank a glass of milk I got a stomachache – no wonder I didn’t like milk! Turns out I was lactose intolerant.  Call it a “here be dragons” moment that eventually alerted me to a minor win-lose situation. But as Lisa Jacobson, a well-respected positive psychology expert, explains, not all negativity is useful and life preserving:

…certain types of negativity promote flourishing more than others. For example, relative to flourishing, genuine constructive criticism trumps the contempt behind mean spirited ridicule.

And Eric Karpinsky – who dubs himself “happiness coach” – suggests that we need to learn how to recognize the difference between what he calls “good sad” and “bad sad”:

Necessary negativity [good sad]…can be seen as the ‘first darts’ of human existence; they cannot be avoided… For example, it is natural to mourn the loss of someone dear to you, to feel guilt when you do something you know is wrong, to be angry when you see an injustice done or disappointed when something doesn’t go your way…

As if these “first darts” aren’t enough, our active little minds often multiply the negative emotions we feel by adding layer upon layer of gratuitous negativity [bad sad] … For example, on top of an authentic disappointment that we didn’t get a promotion at work (first dart), we can add a cascade of second darts…

“I’m not good enough.”
“I knew I should have done x instead of y.”
“Oh God, this is the first step to me getting fired and then we’ll have to sell the house and move in with the in-laws. Everyone will know what a failure I am.”

Sound familiar? Our cute little brains make up all these stories about why something happened that over-generalizes an experience… or catastrophizes it… or assumes victim-hood…

Karpinsky also provides a four step process for distinguishing between necessary and gratuitous negativity:

  1. Listen to what you are telling yourself and ask “What part of what I’m feeling is based on an outside, empirical fact that legitimately sucks? And what part of what I’m feeling is based on unreasonable expectations or irrational stories?”
  2. Name that [emotion]… Brain scans show that verbal information almost immediately diminishes the power of negative emotions by engaging the thinking side of the brain.  Once you notice that you are in a negative space, call it out.  Pause and figure out which negative emotion you are feeling
  3. Let it be… the research is clear: when we suppress our negative emotions, our misery multiplies… when we give those negative emotions some space to be felt and to grow and change, it opens up the path for positive emotions to flow too.
  4. Make a decision… [about what] we want to do…  We may WANT to stay in that space for a while to be angry or sad.  That’s fine. (You might take yourself away, however, to not inflict your own emotional pain on innocent bystanders or family members).  Often when we notice a negative emotion, we move to squash it as soon as we can. We react, “I don’t want to feel this! Go away!”  … At some point, seconds or hours or days later, you will want to get back to a neutral or positive space.

Or, if you don’t have enough patience for all that right now, then PattiAnn offered the following quick-time remedy to those “cascades of second darts” in her post, What, Me Worry?:

The Cure – Staying in the Moment

Although some of the time, we face problems – real problems, often we simply anticipate the awful things that might happen. They might! But as you look back over your life, were there that many horrible things to justify the amount of time you’re spending planning for the next disaster? A friend sent me the following video today – which demonstrates the value of staying in the moment.

Or, if you have plenty of time to dwell on all those dragons, you may want to peruse “75 Reminders for Tough Times” Here are a few of my fav’s:

  • Crying doesn’t indicate that you’re weak. Since birth, it has always been a sign that you’re alive and full of potential.
  • No matter how many mistakes you make or how slow you progress, you are still way ahead of everyone who isn’t trying.
  • Never let success get to your head, and never let failure get to your heart.
  • Giving up doesn’t always mean you’re weak, sometimes it means you are strong enough and smart enough to let go.
  • We are not alone. No matter how bizarre or embarrassed or pathetic we feel about our own situation, there will be others out there experiencing the same emotions. When you hear yourself say “I am all alone,” it is your mind trying to sell you a lie so you will continue to feel sorry for yourself.
  • It’s often hard to tell just how close you are to success.
  • When you spend time worrying, you’re simply using your imagination to create things you don’t want.
  • Either you succeed or you learn something. Win-Win.

And, regardless of whether your negativity-dragons are necessary or gratuitous, remember this strange but true fact: we NEED to have a wee bit of negativity in our lives in order to flourish!

Positivity without a little negativity can be too much of a good thing, according to research presented by Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, a University of Michigan psychology professor, at APA’s 2005 Annual Convention… Fredrickson and [her research partner, Marcial] Losada found that those who scored the highest on psychological and social functioning reported an average of 3.2 positive emotions for every negative emotion. Moreover, they found that their negative emotions acted as an “anchor for reality,” since they prevented their positive emotions from hardening.

The appropriate negative feelings, she said, grounded their emotions because they were felt for a limited amount of time and were related to feedback connected to a specific situation. “[Without negativity], you get Pollyanna with a plastic smile on her face,” she explained.


Well now, that’s one way to avoid Botox® shots!

Negative emotions can be positive – you just don’t want too much of that “good” thing!

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