Negativity is good

Negativity is good


Negativity is good

The average person speaks around 16,000 words a day — out loud, that is. Our inner voice contributes tens of thousands more. Most of us are familiar with this constant drip-feed of information, often fierce criticism of ourselves or those around us, or pointless rumination about things we should have said or done differently.

“I’m not spending enough time with my kids/friends/parents; I’m a terrible parent.” “I’m going to mess up this presentation and everyone will know I’m not up to the job.” “I look terrible tonight — my old friends will think I’ve let myself go.” “My boss has no idea how to run this company.” “My co-worker is belittling me yet again.”

According to conventional wisdom, dominated by what psychologist Susan David of Harvard Medical School calls “the cult of positivity”, we should suppress this voice, shouting down these uninvited evaluations and judgments with positive affirmations. “We’re encouraged to challenge the very existence of these thoughts and try to rationalise them away,” says Susan.

In her new book, Emotional Agility, Susan argues precisely the opposite: that negative thoughts are perfectly natural and, providing we respond correctly, useful to our health and happiness.

Silencing negativity goes against our basic biology, she says. “All healthy human beings have an inner stream of thoughts and feelings that include criticism, doubt and fear.” Back in 1872, Charles Darwin posited the (then wildly unpopular) theory that emotions have an evolutionary history that can be traced across cultures and species; that they are not a distraction but have evolved to help us communicate with other people. “The human brain has evolved as a ‘meaning-making machine’, to help us understand danger, learn how to secure love and companionship and consolidate our status in a group,” says Susan.

The benefits of bad thoughts

According to her, we struggle not because we have undesirable thoughts and feelings — this is natural and inevitable — but because we get hooked by them. Then we either bottle them up, projecting confidence and stoicism and trying desperately to ignore them, or we quietly buy into them wholesale, and start treating them as fact.

“Whether we ‘bottle’ or ‘brood’, we’re made to feel guilty about even having critical, doubtful or fearful thoughts,” says Susan. “But negative thoughts and emotions exist for a reason: to help us survive as a species.” To many people — myself included — Susan’s words will come as a blessed relief, because we’ve somehow fostered a culture where we feel bad about having bad thoughts.

In Emotional Agility, Susan sets out a four-step strategy for navigating — not silencing or buying into — these internal observations, thoughts and feelings. “The first step is to notice when it’s becoming a problem, or when you’ve become ‘hooked’,” says Susan. “One telltale sign is when your thinking becomes rigid and repetitive, or ‘broken record’ syndrome.” If your self-recrimination relays the same messages over and over again, or if you notice a pattern — that you always seem to resent younger co-workers, doubt your boss or mistrust your partner — then you have to recognise that you’re stuck.

The second step, according to Susan, is to pause, or “step out” of the thought loop. She quotes the Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl, who said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Psychological ‘labelling’

Refusing to respond to the thought or feeling right away gives us space to recognise it for what it is: a thought, rather than a fact. Susan recommends a psychological technique called “labelling”, where we gain distance from an emotion by replacing, “I’m not up to the job” with “I’m having those thoughts of inadequacy again.” Recognising such judgments as a familiar thought pattern, rather than cold hard facts, can immediately remove the sting from these critical thoughts.

“And don’t be so quick to brand these thoughts as paranoia or insecurity,” warns Susan. “It’s worth considering their function or where they came from,” she says. “Many of us feel like a fraud in the office from time to time, and fear of being found out, or imposter syndrome, is very common. But this thought does perform a function: to stop you becoming complacent, to make sure you prepare for that presentation.”

Core values

Becoming aware of negative thoughts and feelings, softening them, and seeing them for what they are can remind us of our core values and inform our future decisions. The final step is moving on, taking action based on our values rather than our emotions. “The really powerful thing about being reminded of our core values — as negative thoughts and feelings do if we let them — is that we can harness the power of our values to instigate productive change,” says Susan.

“The mind’s thought stream flows endlessly, and emotions change like the weather, but values can be called on at any time, in any situation,” says Susan. “We just need to listen out for them, by responding to unpleasant thoughts and feelings with openness and curiosity.” Negativity, it seems, is not all bad.