Should I always be positive?
It might seem dangerous these days to experience negative emotions. I mean if they increase the risk of cancer wouldn’t it be wiser to avoid them? As if that weren’t enough, we also know from research that optimists live longer and have lower blood pressure*. The social costs can be huge as well — no one will want to be around us if we often complain! After all who who’d like to hang out with a wet blanket?
The pressure to stay always positive has built up within our society. So much that it can lead us to self-punishment. And rather than experiencing emotions we might be trying to avoid them aiming to be nice, calm and forever smiling. But is it always a good idea?
Hmm… Let’s say that seeing our friend’s success we discover we’re jealous. We might start thinking “This is terrible of me!” and immediately try our best to flip the emotion. “I really should wish him all the best… now I will try to send some good energy and make my jealousy disappear… how virtuous of me…” Pushing our bad feelings away, we suddenly feel better about ourselves.
We might also want to punish ourselves for being, sad, unhappy, angry or fearful. “What is wrong with me?” — we might ask “Why can’t I be always positive like we ought to be? I should immediately meditate to lift myself up!”
As much as meditation is of course a great tool and often a great idea, when it comes to emotions, the best approach is… to be smart about them. So rather than feel emotional about our emotions, first of all, let’s treat them as information. About what? Well about us, who else?
Let’s see some examples.
This emotion comes up to inform you that another person has something that you would like to have. We are jealous only about a thing that is important, at least on some level. If we didn’t care there wouldn’t be any emotional load and we would just stay indifferent. When analyzed in this context, jealousy is first of all information that beautifully shows us what is missing in our life. As a result understanding its essence turns it into a kind of a hint.
Should such a feeling come up within you, rather than trying to make it go away, turn it up, tune into it and ask yourself “What is it exactly that I am jealous of?”. Once you know, follow it by “Well, how can I get it then?” As much as finding the answer to the second question may sometimes require some help or insights of an outside specialist, just having the perspective of drawing information about yourself out of your emotions is already a significant step forward.
Feeling jealous will never get you anywhere, yet analyzing jealousy and making conclusions can help you understand your needs, goals and ambitions. The next step — taking constructive action and focusing on the powers within you, usually leads to jealousy disappearing from your life altogether.
Not exactly an emotion anyone would be proud of, yet truth be told many of us do get angry from time to time. Again this emotion comes up only in reference to things that mean something to us. No one will get angry about an issue of no significance to his life. Here a few deep breaths are actually a good idea, as strong negative emotions, to put it bluntly, often make us less intelligent. (Btw — pls remember this phrase: “Don’t make permanent decisions based on temporary emotions”). So in case of anger it is good to count to 10 first.
But there is a message in anger as well — usually it wants to inform us that our boundaries have somehow been violated or some of our needs are not met. Let’s say for example that our boss wants us to stay late (again!). Once the anger has eased off, it is good to take a closer look, asking ourselves a few questions that will help us take the best course of action. In this case they could go like this: What kind of person do I need to become to gain more respect? What can I do to become more assertive at work? How do I balance the workload? Is it time to look for a new job? What other solutions do I see in this situation that would protect me from experiencing anger again? While changing our behaviors and identifying the right actions we learn how to protect ourselves and proceed to a desired reality. One in which there will be no need for anger to appear altogether.
Clearly something is not going according to plan. We can be frustrated about so many things. Not finding a partner, high costs of living, being passed over for promotion. When feelings mount up inside us, I’d say it’s good to let off some steam (though not necessarily sharing our foul mood all over social media ;)). Much better option is to journal about those feelings**, call a trusted friend or find another healthy vent. And once the emergency has died down to simply look inside.
Frustration will not get us anywhere (and neither will complaining). But what is the message of this feeling? What is it exactly I am frustrated about? What does my frustration tell me about myself and my situation? Am I unable to meet some of my goals? What would be the best thing to do now? Who do I need to become, what do I need to do to overturn the situation? Who can help me or give me some advice?
On the plus side, similarly to anger, frustration has a heavy emotional load within itself, this is a lot of energy that can actually be used in a constructive way, to create a new, better future. Imagine transferring all the effort you put into complaining into constructive action, what would your new reality look like?
Covered in this article are of course only a few possible instances and I do not even attempt to touch the whole wide spectrum of human emotions with all its peculiarities. One could go on and on. Sadness looks like an invitation to shake something up and introduce a new energy to our life. Happiness shows what we could have more in our life. And some types of anger rather than inviting one to be more assertive are an invitation to consult a therapist.
What I would like to stress is that instead of blaming ourselves or pretending that our ‘bad’ emotions do not exist, it is good to ask the question why does this come up and then what do I want to do about it. Let our emotions be teachers. Let them guide us and be sources for constructive action. And once we’ve drawn the lesson? Yes, it’s safe to meditate! And the next step? Research! What on? Well of course — on how to stay positive 😊.
* “Learned Optimism” by Martin Seligman shares some science behind staying optimistic.
**There is research about the benefits of journaling. For more insights on this topic check out books by James W. Pennebaker.