The Light in Your Dark Side: How Negative Emotions Serve You

Linda Graham, MFT reflects on the book, The Upside of Your Dark Side by Todd Kashan, Phd, offering a corrective to the last 20 years of the positive psychology movement which itself was meant to be a corrective to psychology’s focus on pathology for the 40 years before that. 

We’re still in the upswing of a paradigm shift; tools of mindfulness, kindness, compassion and gratitude are being widely integrated into every aspect of modern life. Researchers have found great benefit to focusing on the positive.

Happiness – the subjective experience of contentment and well-being, measured by researchers in the frequency of positive thoughts vs. negative thoughts (3.1 ratio) – has many benefits. People with more positivity:

  • Experience better health
  • Have happier marriages
  • Earn more money
  • Are more generous
  • Are promoted more often by their bosses
  • Receive better customer and supervision evaluations at work
  • Are more likely to be social, exploratory, and inventive

The problem is when we conflate happiness with success or self-worth. The authors suggest that “happiness is not the solution to the human condition” and that refusing to face negative emotions and distress can cause a considerable amount of suffering. They are deft at proposing an integration of negative and positive emotions rather than the polarization of them as the key to success and fulfillment.

“Human potential and managing the dark sides of humanity do not need to be in conflict with each other. By merging these two themes, we gain full access to the complexity of what it means to be human.”

The authors acknowledge they are not focusing on coping with major disasters or traumas. They are focusing on the very human tendencies to avoid negative experiences and negative emotions; that especially in America we can be addicted to comfort which actually diminishes our capacities to deal skillfully with the disappointments and difficulties of the average, everyday life.

Admittedly, “First World” problems.

“Given so many amenities available to us today, we’ve developed a tendency to avoid discomfort. We whip out our smartphones the moment we’re left alone – boredom vanquished! We jockey for the fastest lane on the freeway – no frustrating waits! We flip on the television when we get home from work – no other unwinding and de-stressing needed! What most folks don’t realize is that this seemingly natural attraction to an easier life is rooted in avoidance of discomfort. People who fear rejection avoid meetings others; people who fear failure don’t take risks, and people who fear intimacy turn to television and email when they get home from work. Avoidance is the tectonic issue of our time.”

They suggest that a ratio of 80-20, positive to negative, is what leads best to optimal functioning. The authors are looking for ways not to avoid negative emotions but to take the negative out of them. They offer many examples of the upside of the dark side from current research:

  • Students who are confused but work through the confusion perform better on subsequent tests than their peers who “get it” right away.
  • Centenarians – people who are a hundred years old or older – find that negative feelings, not positive ones, are associated with better health and more physical activity.
  • Police detectives who have themselves been victims of crime show more grit and work engagement when working with civilians victims of crime.
  • Spouse who forgave physical or verbal aggression were likely to receive more of it, whereas those who were unforgiving enjoyed a precipitous decline in spousal aggression.
  • Workers who are in a bad mood in the morning but shift to a good mood in the afternoon are more engrossed in their work than their counterparts who were happy all day.

“Modern people are less accustomed to hardship than our forebears, who had to contend with world wars, economic depressions, influenza epidemics, and other pervasive hardships. Relative wealth and advances in technology mean that nowadays we enjoy unprecedented comfort. They also mean that we increasingly view discomfort as toxic, unmanageable, and intolerable.”

The key to benefiting from experiencing negative emotions is distress tolerance.

“People make a mistake not in their desire to avoid the unpleasant, but rather in underestimating their ability to adequately tolerate the distress of negative emotions. You’re more capable of handling unpleasant emotions than you give yourself credit for. You can carry difficult thoughts and feelings inside, observe them, but know that you and they are not the same. This idea bears repeating: you are not your psychological experiences, even though they can affect you. If may sound strange – radical even – to suggest that somehow you are not the same things as your thoughts and feelings. You are not just the uncomfortable thoughts in your mind and the feelings they trigger – precisely because you can observe those thoughts and feelings. Whatever or whoever this observer is – the self, the personality, the soul, call it what you will – it is, by definition set apart from those feelings and the fact that you can observe them is proof of this. When you recognize this observer as being separate from the pain, you can become better at tolerating that pain.”

The important question is this: what purpose do negative emotions serve? As it turns out, they’re an important part of our healthy emotional architecture. Although they can be messy, unpleasant, and sometimes problematic, negative emotions are also very useful. Emotions – all emotions – are information…. People who try desperately to escape, conceal and avoid negative states, miss out on all this valuable information.

  • You want to feel the prickle of fear in situations where physical harm is possible.
  • You want to feel the thrust of anger when you need to stick up for your children.
  • You want to feel frustration when you make inadequate progress in your guitar lessons, and
  • You want to regret telling your children they aren’t intelligent, attractive or good people.

Part of being a fully functioning human being is to see the positive in the negative, to be able to use those negative states when it is to our advantage to do so. Researchers are finding that because unhappiness tends to cause people to focus on the specific and on details (whereas happiness tends to cause people to have a fuzzy, rosy perspective on things), when people are in a negative frame of mind they are more persuasive, less naïve, can remember facts of an event more clearly, can detect deception more easily, are less biased in assessing the emotional expressions of others.