On Negativity

I recently read a blog post on the privilege of positivity. OK, I was scrolling through FB when I saw it shared. Sometimes I think scrolling through social media is not a complete waste of time; else where would I see pieces like this? I needed to see it. I struggle with a perception of myself as a negative person. I am (still) dealing with the fallout of what you might call my negativity reaching its boiling point recently (9 weeks ago, but who is counting?). It spilled over in a way that I did not anticipate, mostly because I was among friends who I didn’t think would judge me so harshly for speaking my truth. When something happens in my micro-sphere that I can’t understand, particularly if it involves a misperception about me or something that I am involved in, I get very frustrated. As in, “how can anyone possibly think that?” And often, that manifests with a raised voice, some choice expletives, and a WTF tone. Which is pretty much the exact opposite of the quiet, introverted demeanor I usually exhibit, not to mention my proclamations of spreading a gentle parenting approach in which the aim is to have compassionate, respectful interactions with those around you (both children and adults). 

So this seemingly random post on positivity that I stumbled upon spoke to me and came at just the right time as I was wallowing in my ocean of negativity. (Truthfully, that’s pretty much where I live most of the time.) The author, Pavlovitz, writes about being challenged by a friend to post only positivity the entire day. And then he goes on to say, “The request to ‘be positive,’ seems to mean to avoid giving someone any information (or providing that information in a way) that derails the path and plans and emotional state of their day. If it causes another person to become angry or to grieve or if it rubs up against a set of assumptions they have—then it’s negative.” Pavlovitz argues that this comes from a place of privilege when we have the opportunity to “turn off” the bad news happening all around the world: “That we can tire of a story or an issue likely means we have no real personal stake in it.” 

I agree with the notion that cultivating positivity is privileged, and I also would extend the idea that suppressing anger and other forms of expressed negativity (e.g., sadness)—whether it’s in ourselves or from other people—is privileged. When we pass judgment on and shame someone (be they 5 or 55) for expressing their anger or negativity, such condemnation comes from that place of privilege where we rid ourselves of the uncomfortable feelings that anger puts on us, especially if we interpret the anger as directed at us. But trying to stifle the negativity that we experience from others in our lives cuts off the full range of our human experience, not to mention prevents opportunities for growth, for everyone involved.

For parents (or any human, really), it is quite difficult to see or hear our children (or other people’s children) get angry, frustrated, upset, starting to melt down, or even succumbing to the throes of a full-on tantrum crumpling to the floor in a heap. We may cringe. We may get angry ourselves. We may feel exasperated. We may empathize wholeheartedly with this tiny human struggling to make sense of the world around them. (Truthfully, we may feel a combination of all of that.) A gentle parenting approach suggests connecting with our children to help them regulate those huge, difficult emotions, and then re-directing them to a calmer place with love and support until they regain access to all of their cognitive functioning skills. This approach allows children an opportunity to go all the way into their emotions, rather than suppressing and hiding them. Evolutionary psychologist, Tracy Cassels, PhD, describes an array of self-soothing behaviors as tools we develop for dealing with negative emotions. She emphasizes how we can model self-soothing for those young people around us. For example, when frustrated, simply say that you are frustrated; be open about it, and use the opportunity to talk about how you can work through the frustration. Cassels suggests that we should “show [children that] it’s okay to feel negative things. When our children are openly sad or upset, don’t try to stop it, just be there to comfort. Let them get it all out and know that feeling bad is a part of life and not one we need to run from, but one we need to accept and let pass.” 

Let me say that again: “feeling bad is a part of life.” We cannot banish our negative emotions because they are scary and uncomfortable, any more than we can banish the bad news from the world. The more we try to rid ourselves of our scary, negative feelings, the more we will succumb to them. Brené Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, explains that exposing our emotions—both positive and negative—to others makes us feel vulnerable; vulnerable to judgment, to critique, to rejection. In a society that tells people to hide their emotions, “we feel contempt when others are less capable or willing to mask feelings, suck it up, and soldier on. We’ve come to the point where, rather than respecting and appreciating the courage and daring behind vulnerability, we let our fear and discomfort become judgment and criticism”. In rejecting vulnerability, we close the door on conversations about societally “undesirable” emotions such as fear, shame, and sadness—emotions that, as Brown notes, “profoundly affect the way we live, love, work, and even lead.”

Embracing our difficult feelings, our anger, our negativity, is hard, particularly given our society’s sharp focus on finding and maintaining happiness. But, I believe that only airing positivity is not the way to fully experience life. It stifles our humanity and ultimately leaves us trying to strong-arm any negative experiences into submission, lest we feed our demons and let them get too powerful. As the Buddhist teacher, Tsultrim Allione, writes in her 2008 book, Feeding Your Demons, suppressing or even destroying the negative, be it feelings or an enemy, leaves the door open for continued suffering. Instead of fighting against our demons (in whatever form they arise, including anger, perfectionism, jealousy), when we befriend “that which scares us most, we find our own wisdom.”

In Buddhism, it is said that “in our basic nature, we are enlightened and our anger is really wisdom.” This makes sense considering how, evolutionarily speaking, anger is a physiological response to some threat; a survival mechanism. Of course, in today’s modern society, we do not usually encounter the same type of anger-inducing threats to our survival that we did before. We still need to get angry and “emotional”, though, to understand our own boundaries. Psychologist/psychoanalyst, Polly Young-Eisendrath, in The Hidden Treasure of Anger notes that 

as a response to being wronged, anger is a boundary-setter that says, ‘Stop! I can’t tolerate this,’ or, ‘This isn’t working for me.’ It is not blaming the other or shaming the self. Often experienced first as a contraction in the throat, chest, stomach, or abdomen and a clenching of the fist, anger may be associated with the words “I can’t go on like this” seared into the mind.

Polly Young-Eisendrath

Young-Eisendrath, like Brené Brown, points out that to express anger is to make yourself vulnerable; you’re making yourself vulnerable to judgment by expressing your own needs for fairness, justice, tolerable treatment, etc. But in this sense, attempting to understand the source of an angry expression (e.g., a need for fairness not being satisfied) can be very informative to both the person experiencing the anger (by making them more aware of their own boundaries and expectations) and the other participants in the interaction (e.g., by giving them a different view of how their actions are being perceived, by giving them a better sense of what words or actions may be negatively received by the other person so that they can choose different words/actions in the future if they so choose). 

Anger and aggression are scary things to see and to feel. And, yes, I have been horrified when I see the 5-year-old I birthed emulate my aggressive, angry outbursts when she is frustrated. But, as I learn more about this life and our humanity, I go right back to the notion that this is a human experience. Anger, frustration, outbursts. All are normal parts of life. It’s what we do with it that matters. I wish I had been able to learn this at her age. To learn that anger is valid; that being frustrated is inevitable; that getting  fired up and feeling that bio-physical reaction with adrenaline pumping and cortisol releasing is an evolutionary, human process. Ideally, we have the self-control needed to face and express our anger with kindness, but sometimes we’re just too tired, stressed, and depleted to access this self-control. John Gottman, the relationship researcher, notes that “when your heart is racing and you’re physiologically aroused, you need access to someone’s cerebral cortex, because you don’t have access to your own”. 

I don’t ever want to shame the 5-year-old in my life (or anyone in my life) for getting angry about something, just like I am working on not feeling shame for expressing my own anger when it bubbles up, even if the others accuse me of being too “negative” or too “emotional”. (This is super challenging given how long I’ve shamed and judged myself as a horrible human being when expressing my “negative” emotions.) When I express my own anger, I hope that I am lucky enough to be in a safe place, with people who care enough about me to see my anger for what it actually is: setting boundaries, expressing frustration, expressing my own personal feelings, and as a way to get to a place of understanding. I hope that I am around people who will say, “Seems like you’re angry. That’s ok—we still love you.” So when the 5-year-old in my life gets mad, I do my best to sit with her during her outbursts, and to share with her that space of raw emotional energy. And when she is ready, I validate her feelings. I tell her, “Seems like you’re angry. That’s ok—I still love you. A lot.” Being able to experience negative feelings in their entirety matters because that is humanity. More than that, we need to feel unconditionally safe and loved despite any negative expression we may exhibit that shows the world that we are not perfectly happy and in control at all times. Because no one is perfectly happy and in control at all times.

To live our lives we need to experience the full range of humanity. Some of us lean a little more negative than others. But we’re still on the spectrum. And that’s a good thing.