Should we focus on the positive emotions and ignore the negative ones, or are the negative emotions actually useful to us? What is the right balance?
I often find myself telling clients to focus on the positive aspects of their lives. Positive thinking is associated with a better balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, which in turn help to calm anxiety and ease depression. I tell them to:
Notice the positive things in their lives and pay attention to them;
Do something that will help themselves or others – something positive; and
Have positive conversations or interactions with other people.
A lot of my clients lead highly stressful lives and develop large amounts of anxiety. So I ask them, “What has been good about this last week?” I want to encourage them to start noticing the positive things that are happening around them – which is sometimes difficult when your life is choked with anxiety – so it is a skill that they have to relearn.
But there is a problem with something that is known as “toxic positivity”. Toxic positivity is an attitude that some people have that no matter what happens you “should” put a positive spin on it. Smiling through everything with a sort of false grin on your face is actually a very bad idea. The toxic positive attitude can lead to even more stress. Despite this, I still find that some of my clients have the toxic positivity attitude.
The RAW emotions are Regret, Anger and Worry – and despite the fact that they are all negative, they have their place in our lives.
Regret is all about being sad about an event that didn’t go the way we wanted it to. It is actually important to think about that event, because it might teach us what went wrong and how to avoid doing the same thing again. If I regret arguing with my friend, it might help me avoid arguing with them in the future.
Anger also has its place. When we become angry with something, it makes other people around us feel uncomfortable, and is a message to them that this is something we feel strongly about.
Worry is all about thinking about the things that could go wrong in the future. This is useful, because it allows us to plan for things going wrong so that we can be ready if it actually happens.
The problem with the RAW emotions comes when they get too strong. Regret is only useful so far as we learn lessons from the event. Anger becomes a problem when it is so bad that it breaks up relationships. Once we have prepared for bad things happening in the future – worry is no longer needed. If you have taken your exam, waiting for the result – there is no point in worrying about it as you can’t do anything about it.
Getting the balance right
It’s all about balance – a bit of regret, anger or worry is fine – if it helps you in the future, but regretting something for the rest of your life, catastrophising about everything that could possibly go wrong, and being angry about every little thing that goes wrong – these are the things that cause stress and anxiety.
So spend a few moments thinking about your life. Have you got the balance right? How much of your time do you spend noticing and enjoying the positive things that are going on? How much of your time to you spend having a positive conversation or doing something positive? And how much time do your spend being cross about things, regretting past decisions and worrying about what could go wrong?
Now ask yourself … have I go the balance right?
Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash