Negative Wolf is clearly inviting bad energy.
Negative Wolf is inviting bad energy again.

I see a lot of postings in my online travels talking about “negativity.” On Facebook we are regularly exhorted to avoid negativity. Have negative people in your life? Chuck ’em!  Negative thoughts? Change ’em! Bad things happen to you? Ignore ’em!Turn that frown upside down! And under no circumstances should you be anything less than a cheery paragon of Zen, eliminating anything remotely troubling from your outlook like a kind of existential vacuum cleaner. Have breast cancer? Then you’d better get your chin up, because cancer loves negativity! It makes tumors grow! So be positive. I know it’s rough with that wire sticking out of your boob, but that’s no excuse to be churlish.

Have a traumatic childhood? Nasty divorce? Financial downfall? You can’t let it control you, brush that shit off, and for God’s sake, don’t be negative. Perhaps even worse is the idea peddled by some that if you entertain negative emotions, you invite negative events.

This is all toxic nonsense. If I eliminated every negative person from my life, my options for relationship of any kind would be vanishingly narrow. The population of that category of people is very small, and is not even entirely human: it consists roughly of my dog and the Dalai Lama.  If I took seriously the idea that I should eliminate everyone negative from my life, my son would need to find a new mother. None of you have seen him at 6:45 a.m., clutching his iPad which is playing “Eye of the Tiger” on an endless loop because that’s his wakeup music, and also the soundtrack to the endless series of whines about being required to exit the bed every morning to attend fifth grade. The dirty little secret is that everyone is negative sometimes. Listen, I get what they’re talking about — those people who are constantly whining about one thing or another, clinging to rage like a life raft, railing forever about the injustices of the world. But the irony is that this sort of behavior is just a substitute for ancient pain they’ve never really worked through. So they just traded out one negativity for another — the real issue got stuffed, but the refrain of negativity sings on.

There’s a palpable fear to all these messages, and advice that reeks of fear always makes me suspicious. In my view, the best way to stay mired in negativity is to fear it,  deny it, suppress it, hack it off, condescend to it, or develop contempt for it. Anger, fear, sadness, pain, these are all parts of the human condition, part of being whole. Once I started accepting them and honoring them with gentleness, I discovered that they were very brief house guests. They still visit, but they don’t trash the place anymore. And they are no longer permanent squatters in my emotional basement. I’m more positive. Let the negative feelings come, ask them with curiosity how they’ve been and what they’re doing in your part of the woods. When they’ve had their due, gently but firmly tell them it’s time to move on.  But usually, they’ll leave before you have to ask them to go.

Negative feelings are like an insistent toddler that wants a turn playing with the toys. Give him a turn, and he’ll get bored in ten minutes and move on.

I refuse to entertain the idea that I am inviting cancer or car wrecks or other bad juju by participating in a normal, necessary part of the human experience. That’s utopianism, which is nothing more than denial. And ironically (but elegantly) you will notice that it’s enforced with a heavy dose of guilt.

Not exactly one of the positive sensations.

Positive Wolf, twenty minutes after he exercised mindfulness and let Negative Wolf have a turn.
Positive Wolf, twenty minutes after he exercised mindfulness and let Negative Wolf have a turn.



10 thoughts on “On the dreaded scourge of “negativity.”

  1. God, I love this. This very subject has been on my mind for the last few days. I spent the better part of my life answering, “I’m fine!” when asked how I was. Then a year after my divorce I crashed and burned and finally learned that 1) it was okay to ask for help 2) I could be authentic about my feelings to the people who really cared about me; it was okay to say, “You know, I’m hurting” (or insert whatever “negative” emotion you choose) and 3) I was not some social misfit for feeling less than happy all the time.

    Yes, I believe that practicing gratitude is a good thing; it does help but it doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen to you and it doesn’t mean you have to go around pretending normal at all times.

    And you’re right. By owning those feelings, sitting with them and giving them their due they don’t stick around as long. Thank you for this.

    1. You’re welcome! I’m a firm believer that being negative about negativity isn’t anything but denial. I’m always nervous around people who expect me not to be whole. Let’s stop hacking off parts of ourselves that seem scary or unattractive.

  2. I was influenced by JK’s post today too. I actually sat down to write out a bunch of the good and positive things in my life. Not to stuff the negatives–but to celebrate and highlight the things that don’t always burble to the surface of my thinking as they would if they weren’t competing with the sometimes overwhelming number of negative things.

    Here’s a confession: I have a tendency to occasionally overindulge in alcohol and other “numbing” agents when trying to avoid certain emotions. The best way I’ve found to counter this behavior is to remind myself firmly that, if I’m feeling loneliness or fear or anger or defeat, it is because I have earned these things–like a scout earning a merit badge–by the act of living my life. If I feel them, it’s because I’m entitled to feel them. Wholly, fully. To let them wash over me, experience them, learn from them(?), and, eventually, let them go. They don’t need to be avoided any more than a soldier needs to avoid earning a medal. What kind of safe, isolated, shallow life would we have to lead to not attract these very natural emotions? I don’t need to wallow in them, but I do get to experience them and process them. At some point in our formal education, most of us learned that conflict is a core element of literature. Why would we expect real life to be any different?

    1. I think so, so many people are terrified of *feeling*. I was. And it causes all sorts of avoidance problems, like substances and shutting other people down and depression. But yes, letting them wash over you. I remember in South Dakota on my trip back from Idaho on that one rancid October day, opening my jacket to the bitter wind as a symbol to remind myself that I was determined to FEEL everything. Best thing I ever did for myself.

  3. I find this topic to be endlessly fascinating. In my workplace, the culture of positivity has been embraced. Never say anything negative, or you’ll find yourself on the way out the door, labeled a troublemaker. Of course, people still grumble in private, at lunch, but we can’t ever face facts in public.

    I think the idea that negative emotions attract negative things is the flip side of the old Calvinism, where you had to keep your mind scrubbed of impure thoughts for God. Now you’re free to think all the smutty thoughts you want, but don’t let negativity creep in or you’re doomed to a life of poverty and disease. I hate it because I think it’s a convenient way to avoid feeling sympathy for those less fortunate – “Well, they need to change their attitude,” as if attitude is going to end the war in Syria or a famine or avoid a hurricane.

  4. We fear “feeling” because we believe it will destroy us, that is, how will we possibly be able to face the dark side of the underbelly (thank you Sigmund) that is part and parcel of who we are. We believe that facing that darkness, will certainly kill us. What does us in is not facing the totality of who we are. And that is when we see the effects of camouflaging ourselves in denial – depression, anger, hostility, anxiety, and fear. The list is endless. I am comfortable with my underbelly and the underbelly of the world around me, and it is that comfort that allows me to “open my jacket to the bitter wind”.

    1. Psychotherapist Alice Miller has a slightly different take, in her book The Drama of the Gifted Child. Which I just realized I lent to someone who still has it, so I cannot quote it. Curses! No, wait, I found one that encapsulates it:

      “A little reflection soon shows how inconceivable it is really to love others (not merely to need them), if one cannot love oneself as one really is. And how could a person do that if, from the very beginning, he has had no chance to experience his true feelings and to learn to know himself? For the majority of sensitive people, the true self remains deeply and thoroughly hidden. But how can you love something you do not know, something that has never been loved? So it is that many a gifted person lives without any notion of his or her true self. Such people are enamored of an idealized, conforming, false self. They will shun their hidden and lost true self, unless depression makes them aware of its loss or psychosis confronts them harshly with that true self, whom they now have to face and to whom they are delivered up, helplessly, as to a threatening stranger.”

      She speaks of giftedness not in terms of intelligence, but of intuition and sensitivity. Many children simply are trained out of feeling their own feelings. The stuff Miller talks about runs along a spectrum, and is far more common than what we typically think of as “abusive.”

  5. Thank you!! You are Moses parting the water!

    I once worked with a woman who’d been in some new age psychotherapy and was brain-washed into believing that all she needed to do was smile, talk quietly and calmly, and be positive, and her whole world would be sunshine and buttercups sprinkled with rainbows.
    I always wanted to throw up in her trashcan. She was divorced, had a boyfriend who was verbally abusive and a kid on Ritalin. She was like Linus dragging around a blanket of negativity.

    You simply cannot be a happy, well-balanced person if you pretend all negativity is bad and stuff it in a closet, never to see daylight again. It’s like telling a five-year-old that big kids don’t cry. Those are the kids who grow up to be total whackadoodles and beat kittens with baseball bats.

    1. Oh, Sheree…you are so excellent.

      Her therapist must’ve been dreadful. A really good therapist, I think, knows how to encourage treating negative feelings…positively, with care, curiosity, and tolerance.

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