The Power of Negative Emotions

In All articles, Making sense of mindfulness, Reviews by Norman Lamont

Over the last few months I’ve been dipping in and out of The Power of Negative Emotions by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas. It has a typically yukky self-help book strapline ‘How Anger, Guilt and Self Doubt are Essential to Success and Fulfilment’ but I think it has something important and useful to say.

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They come from the Positive Psychology field of study, essentially the study of happiness, but their investigations took them more and more into looking at the complementary nature of so-called ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ emotions and pointing them towards a better target than happiness – wholeness.

The Hulk, from Marvel comics and moviesThe first thing to say here on a mindfulness blog is that I think their chapter Beyond the Obsession with Mindfulness is based on a misunderstanding of mindfulness, that it promotes trying to be fully present, conscious, rational 100% of the time (you can’t, and the effort to do so would be exhausting). They recognise and support the beneficial effects of mindfulness practice but step aside to say that mindlessness has its uses. It’s an interesting chapter but not the best.
Where I think this book scores  is in its recognition that much of the ‘positive thinking’ and ‘positive emotion’ propaganda we receive is based on the Western obsession with avoiding discomfort at all costs. In the more affluent parts of the world, we’ve managed to avoid huge amounts of physical discomfort which our ancestors – and most of the people who now share the world with us – would have taken for granted. So we now turn to psychological discomfort with the same zeal to remove it and ‘feel good’.

Much mindfulness literature harps on about the amygdala, the ‘primitive’ emotional centre of the brain and how it generates false alarms about non-existent threats, with the implication that all negative emotions are false alarms and that if we learned to recognise and dampen this through meditation we’d live above the fray in some golden helicopter of the enlightened mind, surveying the terrain of thoughts below. Dream on.

We fear negative emotions because we think we’ll lose control or be seen as bad people. But emotions like fear, anger and anxiety give use useful information along with the false alarms. They give us courage, they help us regulate our behaviour, they keep us alert to our surroundings and recharge our creative energies. The trouble is – they don’t feel good. They feel bad. Wholeness, or wisdom, comes from being able to tolerate the discomfort , to experience pain without turning it into suffering (what if I’m really a raging monster?)

And this is one of the benefits – indeed the standard practices – of mindfulness practice, and particularly meditation. We learn to sit with our uncomfortable feelings, we learn to tolerate distress. And that allows us to sort out the false alarms from the genuine information and useful energy that they can provide. Not that I decide my anger is justified and I can therefore allow myself to turn into The Hulk, but there are ways to use all emotions in a skilful and considerate way and I have the option to do so – if I can live with the discomfort long enough.

In short “Abandon the notion of labelling emotions as exclusively positive and negative and instead target what is healthy and unhealthy in a situation”



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