“Look for Opportunity” and “Highlight What’s Working” are two chapters in Do Better Work. The first is about finding opportunities in challenges. The second is about asking, “What’s going well, and how do we do more of it?” When I speak about these chapters, someone in the audience inevitably concludes, “Always think positively!” This is not an interpretation I agree with. But hard as I try, it’s what some people hear.
I believe in positive thinking. It expands my gratitude and reminds me what I value. I also believe in negative thinking, as defined by Dr. Gabor Maté:
Negative thinking is . . . a willingness to consider what is not working. What is not in balance? What have I ignored? What is my body saying no to?1
Negative thinking helps me look my pain and problems in the eye.
To live a full life, I can’t ignore my appreciation or my problems. Both matter. Together, they give me an even-handed view of what’s happening, so I can decide what’s working and what’s not.
Let’s say I trip and break my leg. I’m in pain. I’m angry. One day, I may consider this moment a gift. I might look back and realize, That day when I clumsily broke my leg taught me a great lesson. But right now I’m sad. I’m overwhelmed. I just broke my damn leg. And I’m feeling major emotions as a result. They deserve my attention. I’m not going to minimize them by believing I should always think positively. By processing what I’m feeling in the moment, I respect the stages of grief. I respect myself. By repressing what I’m feeling, I kick the emotional can down the road. Eventually, it will roar back, possibly at an inopportune time.
Here’s neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor on the repercussions of repressing emotions:
I view it like a pipe, where emotions either flow through or build up. When we choose to ignore an emotion, the need for the emotion doesn’t just go away. It stays in the pipe. As we keep doing this, eventually the pipe can’t handle it anymore, so it bursts. And that’s when we either have an inappropriate outburst or we use an addictive behavior—like drugs or alcohol—in an attempt to cope.2
Better to sit with my grief now than let it mutate into a menace.
Same thing if I’m in a relationship that’s chronically stressful. I can acknowledge the aspects that keep me around. It’s convenient. It’s familiar. Every once in a while, it’s fun! Then I can examine the emotions and feelings that are unpleasant but present. From there, I can determine if the relationship is one I want to stay in. If I skip the second part, telling myself, Always think positively! I might convince myself the relationship will get healthier and more equitable when there’s no evidence it will.
Discomfort, grief, trauma—these are important aspects of life. If I am unable to look at them, to assess the breadth and depth of my situations, I might convince myself something is okay when my heart knows it’s not.
Believing in positive or negative thinking at the exclusion of the other is extremism. And I’ve never seen an extreme philosophy that didn’t result in extreme repercussions. As Maté concludes, it may be wiser to forget the adjectives altogether. This is about the power of thinking—trusting ourselves to “to face the full truth, whatever that full truth may turn out to be.”3
I don’t expect any aspect of life to always be any one way. We can’t have lights without shadows, fullness without emptiness, or joy without suffering. These elements complement one another—the same way up complements down, dry complements wet, and masculine complements feminine. The concept of yinyang has persisted for thousands of years because it’s Truth with a capital T. “Always think positively!” trades this observable dynamic for a delusion.
I welcome your thoughts,
1 & 3: When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection by Dr. Gabor Mate, p. 244.
2: Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor shared this during her keynote at Lessonly’s 2018 Yellowship conference.
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