One of the mentors that works here at EQmentor reached out to me over the weekend. He had been struck by a question his mentee had posted and wanted my input prior to responding. His mentee told him that in some of the most popular books and literature, there seems to be universal agreement that negative experiences and the resulting negative emotions are either to be avoided or to be ignored. The widespread message seems to be to not to dwell on negativity and instead leverage the power of “positive energy” and “positive thinking.”
I am all for a positive attitude. I mean, who wants to work or live with someone who sees the preverbial glass half empty all the time? What good could possibly come from an athlete saying “I am going to fail” in the middle of their performance? In this context, yes, I agree that a positive attitude is very good, healthy, and in most cases, contagious.
But I gathered from this mentor that this notion was being extrapolated into an unrealistic territory — in the context of life, in general. It is unrealistic for positivity to be applied so broadly. For one thing, negative experiences are a natural part of life … they will occur whether you want them to or not. When I speak, I often ask my audience to raise their hands if they wake up every morning and hope for something negative to happen. No hands go up. I then ask them to raise their hands if something bad happens anyway … and all the hands go up. So negative experiences are going to happen.
In addition, negative emotions are necessary for positive ones to exist. If you’ve never been sad, it is quite possible you’ve never been truly happy either. If you’ve ever had a great day or a great experience, it is likely because you can juxtapose that to previous days or previous experiences that perhaps were not so good. In other words, it is easy to read popular literature (mostly non-scientific) and begin to take matters out of context.
While I am not suggesting we proactively seek negative experiences, I am suggesting that we seek new and challenging experiences where the likelyhood of failure is possible. I am suggesting that in lieu of nonchalantly brushing off negative experiences for fear of “being too negative” or “dwelling on the negative” that we embrace our negative experiences. In my third book (Is Today The Day?) I interviewed dozens of Stage IV cancer patients. Almost all told me that they learned more from their mistakes in life than their successess and wished they had taken more risks. To learn from mistakes and to figure out ways to make yourself and the world better as a result is truly one of life’s grandest opportunities. The rewards are incalculable and the resultant emotions are just priceless.
My point this week is to not mistake a positive attitude for avoiding learning from negative experiences. Whatever you feel is right. If you’re sad, and asked “how are you?” — concede that you are sad … with the expectation that it is an effort to make yourself better. Responding to the previous question with “Doing just great! How about you?” is not only deceiving and disingenuous, it is not necessary. I urge my readers to not throw the gift of negative experiences away. They happen every day whether we want them to or not. By simply questioning and dialoguing, we can probably find ways to make ourselves, others, and life better. This is the power of emotions.