I am writing this from a hospital where they are resecting a tumor from the brain of an 11 year old boy I love – one whose parents are like younger siblings to me. On top of that, in the past week, I have buried two friends fathers, counseled another regarding his dad going onto life support, and arranged for hospice care for a dear friend who is not much older than me.
I am sad, I am angry and I am a whole bunch of other negative things too. According to recent research though, not only is all that negative emotion okay, it’s actually a useful part of working through this, or any other, dark time.
Far from advocating wallowing in pain, or the use of eternal pessimism as the prism through which we view our lives, a new article in Scientific American nevertheless indicates that allowing ourselves to experience negative emotions is a key component in confronting the painful challenges we face in our lives. It’s ultimately about the therapeutic value if embracing the negative along with the positive — making appropriate space for both.
It may sound obvious, but then I think about how often we are told, tell ourselves or even tell others to: “look on the bright side,” “stay positive,” “don’t let things get you down,” “focus on the good stuff,” etc.
I know such counsel is generally well intentioned, and that simply sinking into a downward spiral of negativity is unhelpful, to say the least. I even appreciate that just as with physical suffering, it is easier to stay out of pain than it is to get out of pain, the same is true for emotional suffering. And yet, making space for negative emotion — for feeling it deeply and acknowledging both its authenticity and its appropriateness — is not only okay, it is therapeutic.
When things suck, we – or at least I, and the people covered in this study – need time to embrace the “suckiness.” Only then can we really move through the painful times toward building better ones. It’s sort of the opposite of being told to “calm down” when we are freaking out, and we all know how well that works, right? Not!
On the other hand, naming the “enemy” we face, and appreciating how real it help us address it. Once I know that the pain is real, authentic, worthy of sympathy and empathy — and I get some of both — that’s when I can dig in an begin working my way out of the suck. That’s what this study is all about, and what I think most of us need.
The time does need to come for embracing the positive, or at least for not focusing on the negative, and if that is where we should choose to spend most of our energy, most of the time. It just turns out that we need not forego the negative to get to a more positive place, and that we are not failing during those painful times when we feel like like is failing us, or failing those we love.
Tears are valuable, negative emotion is healthy, and letting ourselves rage and ache is often really helpful. They are kind of like going in vacations, in a weird sort of way. It’s no way to live in the long term, but neither is never having them.
So yeah, I am making no apologies for this week’s anger and tears. They are my tears and my anger, and they are both real and appropriate. I don’t want them, but I need them. And when I really trust that, is when I can begin to see that they are hardly all there is, and I can begin to put things in perspective. And as far as I can tell, it is perspective which we need most in dealing with hard times — and probably good times as well, but that is for, forgive me, another time.
Brad Hirschfield is the co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. A rabbi, Brad has been featured on ABC’s Nightline UpClose, PBS’s Frontline, Fox News and National Public Radio. He wrote a long-standing column, “For God’s Sake,” for the Washington Post, and has also written for The Huffington Post and Beliefnet.com. He authored the book, You Don?t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. Brad also serves as President of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City.