Growing up, especially in high school, people described me as a negative person. I’ve always been a deep thinker and feeler, and I didn’t know how to process these things in a healthy way back then. I felt sad or anxious much more often than I felt happy.
In an attempt to help me, everyone in my circle would tell me to “just be positive” and “look on the bright side.” What they didn’t realize is that was nearly impossible for me, and their advice only compounded the shame and guilt that I was already feeling.
I wanted to be more optimistic, but I just couldn’t figure out how. And I envied those who seemed to have it so easy.
I wrote positive mantras in my journal and on pieces of paper that I carried with me as reminders, but they didn’t seem to help. As it turns out, you can’t actually force yourself to feel positive emotions (much like you can’t force yourself to think positive thoughts).
There is a narrative in our society that says that negative emotions have no place. Any expression of anger, sorrow, or grief should be done in private because “no one wants to see that.” It’s not appropriate to share. Just be positive. Look for the good in every situation. Be happy. Keep moving forward.
We learn this lesson at a very young age, and we continue to teach it to our kids.
When a child gets upset about something and starts throwing a tantrum, we tell them to go to their room. Instead of trying to have a conversation with them, we lose our patience and send them away to deal with their feelings behind a closed door, perpetuating this message that the world is not a safe place for unpleasant emotions.
Slap a band aid on it. Smile. Everything is ok. You can’t have a meltdown here in front of me! Just be POSITIVE, for goodness sake!
We grow up learning that negative emotions have no value. Moreover, we learn that negativity is “bad.” The only “good” and valuable emotions are positive emotions.
In other words: we subconsciously believe that it’s wrong to feel negative emotions.
And what do we often do with things that are “wrong” or “bad?”
We avoid them in fear of the consequences. And then we stuff them down with something happier.
This is how we’ve been conditioned. We deflect our negative emotions because we are afraid of the consequences — the pain, the discomfort, the disapproval of others, etc.
It looks something like this: We watch the news and it makes us feel upset. We may not even be able to identify the precise emotion, all we know is that we feel “bad:” heart racing, clammy skin, churning stomach. Bad emotions are not safe to express; they should be hidden. So, much like we were instructed to do when we were kids, we retreat to our bedroom. This time, we have ice cream in hand. Because now we’ve learned how to make ourselves feel better (even if only temporarily).
Escaping our emotions can also look like good habits — exercise, working, planning.
Here’s the thing though: any time that you do something to avoid feeling a negative emotion — even if it’s a positive thing! — you will begin to associate that thing with the negative emotion.
For example: if you go for a run any time that you feel anxious, you will associate running with anxiety. Therefore, every time that you go for a run, you will be reminded of the very emotion that you are trying to escape.
Another example: Positive affirmations.
If you are repeating positive mantras to yourself ONLY to avoid feeling negative emotions, then you’re only going to strengthen the link between the two. Eventually, your reciting your positive affirmations will become synonymous with the negative feelings that you’re trying to evade.
So, quit trying to get rid of your negative emotions.
When is the last time that you actually let yourself feel sad / scared / angry / embarrassed without immediately trying to stuff it down with something more “positive?”
What does it even look like to feel those emotions? What happens in your body? Can you allow yourself to be still and experience those sensations?
It’s a lot easier said than done. Our natural inclination is to try and make ourselves feel better any time we experience something uncomfortable. The thought of sitting with our negative emotions makes us squirm. This is our conditioning.
But we need to normalize negative emotions.
We need to stop shoving positivity down everyone’s throat and pitting negative emotions as “bad” or “wrong.” We need to show ourselves (and our kids!) that unpleasant emotions must be felt, validated, and talked about.
Fear, anxiety, guilt, anger, sadness, and grief can be great teachers. But first, we have to be able to identify and express them appropriately — and that means we have to give them space. Space in society, space in our homes, space in others, space in ourselves.
Originally published at http://fullwellself.com on May 8, 2020.