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by Andrea M. Darcy
Ever had coffee with a forcefully positive acquaintance and felt well, just exhausted after? But then had a good old-fashioned rant with someone you trust and felt relieved? Welcome to the hidden power of negativity.
Isn’t positive thinking recommended?
Yes, the capacity to be positive is important. It means we can recognise what is working in our lives and not just what isn’t. And we can be grateful and satisfied with what we have.
But like all things done to the extreme, positive thinking does have a shadow side. We can, for example, use it to repress and avoid things that need resolving. Or to develop a false happy persona that sees our real self drift further and further away.
Enforced positivity can also mean we miss out on the necessary skills that our shadow emotions can offer. Anger helps us with boundaries, and sadness helps us to let go.
But doesn’t negative thinking cause depression?
When negative thinking reaches the level it is consistent and repetitive (called rumination) we can indeed see serious negative effects.
Rumination has long been a major symptom of both depression and anxiety, and a very recent study has even linked it to cognitive decline and dementia.
But what about negative thinking that is occasional over constant? Should we really panic and start chanting endless affirmations whenever we have a thought, feeling, or experience that isn’t positive?
What does science say about the power of negativity?
Surprisingly for, some, perhaps less for psychologists and psychotherapists, research supports the power of negativity.
1.Negativity is more motivating than positivity.
The ‘negativity bias’ is the psychological term for the tendency of our brains to more clearly remember and dwell on negative events than positive ones. And research shows that this bias gives us motivation.
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For example, if we think taking on more projects at work might mean a promotion, we might think about going for it, but then not bother. But if we recognise that if we don’t up our game we will lose that promotion to our nasty sexist colleague who will lord it over us? Then we will suddenly be motivated.
2. The power of negativity can mean greater achievement in life.
“Defensive pessimism” is a term created by psychologists Norem and Cantor to explain a phenomenon they discovered when researching the link between anxiety and motivation.
It turns out that envisioning the worst and lowering our expectations when approaching tasks and life goals means we tend to actually achieve more than our positive peers.
Further research showed that you can also end up feeling better than your positive friends. Those who had an optimistic start with their goals were found to later feel worse when reflecting on themselves and what they’d achieved.
3. You might have more friends and be easier to be around.
Remember that example above of the endlessly cheery friend who secretly grates on your nerves? Turns out that a bit of negativity can make us better communicators.
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Research on how our moods affect our communication styles found that overly optimistic types were selfish with their communication, and more likely to put the focus on themselves. Those in a negative mood, on the other hand, were more accommodating to the needs of others.
And another study found that negativity makes us more likely to share things and be fair and generous compared to our optimistic counterparts.
5. It may help your relationships.
A study by psychologists Neff and Geers looked at how optimism affects marriage. It found that an optimistic nature was helpful. But enforced positivity about your marriage? Not so much.
The study found that those who were generally optimistic about all areas of life took the time to work out issues in their relationships. But those who were forcefully positive about their marriages were likely to avoid conflict resolution, not invest in problem solving behaviours, and see their marriages fail over time.
5. Negativity could see you live longer.
An extensive German study found that the more we age, the more negative we get about how happy we’ll feel in five years time. We tend to move from overestimating our future when an adolescent, to underestimating it once we were and older adult.
Which is really for the best, as the study also showed that in later adulthood, being negative about our future meant we were less likely to have disabling health issues or die. And this remained the case even accounting for other variables like health and income.
How to embrace the power of negativity
So how can you use negative thinking while not getting stuck in it to the extent you develop anxiety or depression?
1.Try a negativity dump.
“Complaining — bitching, moaning, kvetching, griping, and carrying on — is a terrific and constructive thing to do. You’ve just got to learn how to do it right.”
So states the grandmother of self-help, Barbara Sher, in her seminal 1979 book Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want. In fact she titled an entire chapter “the Power of Negative Thinking”.
She is the creator of the ‘Hard Times session’. This is a ritual with trusted friends, where you take turns ranting for five minutes as much as you can about what is bothering you, making it as dramatic and wild as possible. The other person’s job is to only listen and cheer you on. The end result? Feeling lighter and clearer on what you really want.
Don’t have anyone to rant with? Then grab some paper and write it all out in what Sher refers to as a ‘Hard Times notebook’. The only rule here is to never try to solve your problems mid rant.
2. Embrace the power of negativity with mindfulness mediation.
The Westernised image of people smiling with their eyes closed as they meditate hides the reality of the practice. The truth is that when we first begin meditation, with our high hopes of suddenly feeling flooded with peace, we instead seem to experience anything but. All of our negative thinking we have been ignoring comes rushing to the forefront, along with annoyance, bitterness, you name it.
Meditation is not in the end about being positive, it’s simply about being present. To all that arises, both positive and negative. The end result is that we are able to accept things in life without giving them undue power over us.
3. Attend therapy.
A counsellor or psychotherapist’s job is to create a safe space for you to explore your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. And that includes anything you perceive as negative. A good therapist is neither offended nor bothered by any negativity, they rather see is a healthy part of your journey of self.
Time to stop pretending life is great when you feel miserable? And learn how feel at home with all your thoughts and feelings? Work with one of our highly-regarded psychotherapists in our London-based offices. Or use our sister site to find UK-wide therapists ranked by user feedback.
Andrea M. Darcy is the lead writer of this site. An ex screenwriter turned popular mental health expert, she aims to help you feel better about yourself just as you are.