The Problem of Positive Emotions
Updated: Aug 18, 2021
We’ve talked about this before on this blog, but it is something that I’d like to tackle again from a slightly different angle. The self help/spiritual development world is pretty much obsessed with positive emotions these days. To hear them talk, you are only allowed to think positive things, focus on positive events, allow positive people in your life, and speak positive words. Doing anything else is the death of your dreams, relationships, enlightenment, and health.
Feel free to roll your eyes with me.
I’ll certainly admit that being around a Debbie Downer all the time is not terribly conducive to a healthy relationship. You can’t meet your goals if you are always expecting yourself to fail. Negative self-thought can derail the most confident person and watching negative news stories 24/7 will pretty quickly put you in the madhouse.
On the other hand, I like my friends enough to be around them when they are having a bad day and want to gripe a bit (and I hope they feel the same about me). Venting can be cathartic. Some level of realism is good for goal setting, especially when you see problems coming up and plan for them. If you show me a person without any negative self-thought then I assume they are either completely enlightened or entire delusional (guess which one I think is most likely?). And how in the world are you supposed to develop empathy and compassion for others if you never witness their pain or share in their suffering?
You can probably tell that I’m not buying this whole “good vibes only” spiel. Ora North, in her book I Don’t Want to be an Empath Anymore, calls this overfocus on positive emotions “lightwashing.” I love this term because it sums the concept up so well. It seems super-spiritual to “only see the light” and “focus on the good” but in reality, it just covers over the hard stuff with (as Ora says) “trite displays of affirmations, positivity memes, rainbows, and unicorns.”
I’ve also heard this idea referred to as “spiritual bypassing” (from the aforementioned author and others). You take the spiritual route and give a pass on all the messy parts of being human. Those messy parts aren’t fun (which is why they are generally referred to as “negative”) but they are important parts of our life. They teach us to grow into the people we are supposed to become. Through them we learn about who we are, who and what we like, and where we are going in life. Hard things in life develop character, grit, and empathy. These tough times make you more spiritual AND more human. They also make you a lot more wise and well-rounded then the people who avoid all the tough stuff by being “positive” all the time.
In Constructive Wallowing, Tina Gilbertson declares that when we deny our feelings, we deny our wholeness (you can check out her blog here). If you are pushing down emotions, particularly the “negative” ones, then you are shoving parts of who you are into a closet and refusing to accept them. Do this long enough and you create a fractured self, the largest part of which is hidden away and unable to share its side of the story. In the energy world, this creates energetic blocks as those “negative” emotions are stuffed into various parts of the body. Over time the blocks manifest in some way, often pain, undiagnosable disease, stress, tensions, or fatigue. The emotions you hide under rainbows and unicorns want to be heard, and will take any route possible to get the message to you.
This also plays out on a collective level, as society overall puts a happy face on things and moves along as if nothing is wrong. The “positive thinking” people don’t want to dwell on systemic social problems. Racism? We just need to love more! Covid? We can get through this together! Climate change? Eat vegan and send happy thoughts to animals! Again, there is some space in the public sphere for this, but not as a denial of the real, hard issues going on. This “good vibes only” idea is, as Ora North says, “a really convenient way to ignore reality and enable oppression.” If we are unable or unwilling to sit with the grief of Black and Asian Americans experiencing racism (along with every other minority group), we will never get angry enough to do something about it at a systemic level. If we cannot talk about how sexism affects half of the human population in large and small ways, we will never create the change needed for feminine voices to be heard at all levels of society (and I don’t think it is a coincidence that the feminine voice is more likely to have things to say about ending racism). If we can’t confront the poverty and violence our neighbors in Central America are facing, we will never be able to find solutions in which they can choose to live happy, healthy lives in any county they choose.
Emotions are important pieces of information we use to inform our lives, personally and collectively. If we refuse to deal with the “negative” ones, then we are leaving out half of our data points. How can we possibly make good decisions about our future if we only look at half the picture? How can we look back at our past to find healing if we refuse to see the stuff that needs to be healed? How can we have compassion for others if all we choose to see is the best parts of their lives?
Being fully human is embracing the “positive” and “negative” emotions and using them as a realistic point of reference to launch us into a better future. If we want to change ourselves and our world, we need to look at everything and figure out what works and what doesn’t. Pain and suffering are explicitly clear signals that something needs attention. We can look back and heal the past or look forward to make changes for a better future. Either way, the message of “negative” emotions is clear. Something needs to change and wishing it away is simply not going to help.
So don’t stop being positive. We do need that in the world. But don’t see the light side at the expense of the hard stuff. Don’t fool yourself into believing that it is more spiritual to only talk about the happy things. Be willing to take the time to feel your emotions. Be willing to listen to and feel the emotions of others in the world who don’t look like you. You may need to go back into the past and dig out some old stuff that needs to be healed and released. Or you may simply need to work on feeling the daily stuff that comes up. Either way, don’t think that ignoring any of the “negative” stuff is going to do one bit of good. Help us all out and take some time to work on it.
If you want to read more on this topic, you can click on the tag “emotions” at the bottom or top of this post to get more articles on this. If this feels overwhelmingly scary, Contact Me and we can set up some time to talk and get you started. I do energy work and coaching that helps you identify and process the hard emotional stuff.
And if you have been wondering why I’ve been using putting “positive” and “negative” emotions in quotes, it is because I don't think these labels are helpful. Click here to read some more about a better way to think (and teach our kids) about emotions.