The earliest popular ideas on positive thinking came from well-known authors like Norman Vincent Peale (Power of Positive Thinking) and Napoleon Hill (Think & Grow Rich). Their contribution in the late 20th century has brought forth the understanding and appreciation of “as you think – you become.”
With the emergence of behavioural (reactive) and cognitive psychology (proactive), many self-help schools expanded on the benefits of positive thinking and created their own methodologies for envisioning desired goals and strategies to achieve outcomes.
More recent developments (1999), with the research and contribution of Martin Seligman PhD (Learnt Optimism) and Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi PhD (Finding Flow) are all surrounding the study of happiness, creativity and positive virtues. This is a landmark turn in psychology because traditionally, psychiatry & psychology focus on the study of mental illnesses, whereas Positive Psychology concentrates on nurturing talents and making normal life more fulfilling.
Positive psychology is now an academic study offered in several universities around the world – linked to the movement Seligman & Csikzentmihalyi have successfully created.
I’m OK, Please Tell Me You’re OK.
Somewhere along this movement it became almost a global meme that we should not talk about our weaknesses or more detrimentally, talk about our failures and inabilities. In fact, people avoid it like a disease, yes, like some form of social disease.
In our work-dominant culture it is a CLM (career limiting move) to expose your weaknesses.
When we meet up with friends and relatives, we try to avoid talking about our challenges but emphasize on our progress and positive side of things instead. Actually, many people find it hard to emotionally deal with the dark side of others, even when they are being open and authentic (as opposed to putting on a facade). Are you one of them?
The Dark Side
According to Carl Jung, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” This unwelcome part of ourselves is coined as our shadow by Dr Jung. In our current age of obsessing on “feel good” emotions, we have unprecendented soaring rates of anxiety, addiction and generalised depression globally. Addictions can come in the form of alcohol, party drugs, self-medication, food, sex, video-gaming and work.
But you and I (and most people) know that at some point in our lives “staying positive” hits a wall and chaos calls us to attend to the darker aspects of our selves.
Our first instinct is to avoid, ignore or deny them. But by doing so, we snowball the problem or lose full control of it in the future.
In the work of Miriam Greenspan – Therapist (for 30 years) & author, she called grief, deep fear and despair the “dark emotions.” Universal triggers of such intense emotions are loss of loved ones, fighting illnesses, being hit by natural calamities, loss of important jobs, the change of living conditions, confronting a lifelong limitation, divorce or infidelities. Such traumatic events are not uncommon; in fact most of us walk through them at least once in our lifetime. Sometimes, these events converge at one point in our lives – and at this point we feel incapacitated, lost, confused, overwhelmed and hurt.
The Gift of Dark Emotions
As much as we try to avoid, ignore and deny them, dark emotions are part of the divine plan. The emotions that we go through in life are like our own personal rainbow, one with a full spectrum. All the colours of our emotions help us understand the different aspects of our selves and therefore, more fully appreciate the power of the light within us, through darkness. Remember, light is made up of different colours, not just white.
- Grief: We grieve because we are not solitary beings and what connects us also breaks our hearts. We form strong unconscious attachments. A fully experienced grief brings us the unexpected gift of gratitude for the lost beloved one and for life.
- Deep Fear: Instead of incapacitating us, fear urges us to act – to preserve our life. By consciously befriending fear and accepting the sense of vulnerability – we expand our capacity for joy.
- Despair: It is a signal of our human hunger for meaning in life, it calls us to cut through our illusions, repair our souls and find a deeper sense of meaning that will give us the strength to live through uncertainty. One gains a stronger and more resilient faith in life.
Most of us, in our programmed map of the world, see dark emotions as symptoms of disease or illness, abnormality or dysfunctionality.
Instead, we should see these darker colours – brown, grey, turquoise and black – as a spectrum of our rich emotions. IN FACT, IT’S NOT THE EMOTIONS THAT ARE NEGATIVE, BUT OUR BELIEFS REGARDING THEM!
As we pursue greater and greater amounts of happiness, success, power and possibility – we avoid dealing with failure, disappointment, decline, suffering, loss and death. We’d rather stay “young and innocent” forever. This is understandable, but paradoxically, our efforts to avoid our dark side move us further and further away from the light – our expansive potential.
It is when we don’t honour the dark emotions that we end up experiencing their powerful energies in displaced, irrational and destructive forms.
We become addicted to all the distractions mentioned above. The more we repress and dump them in our subconscious, the more toxic they become (expressed in our bodies as illness and sickness). By surfacing those parts of us that we repress, we gain new energy or feel lighter, and most of all, we make those dark parts of us functional again.
The world-famous “Hero’s Journey” mapped out by Mythologist Dr Joseph Campbell, tells us that everyone is on some form of journey to receive their calling, crossing the threshold of the unknown, finding new masters and fighting personal demons (the dark side), and then returning home as a new person, sharing personal learnings. This journey would not be complete without acknowledging and working with one’s demons/dragons/dark side. By the way, Dr Campbell uncovered the Hero’s Journey when he, himself, was in total darkness – five years of depression.
Transmutation Process of Life
When one goes through deep coaching work (beliefs, values & identity), one often mobilises resources within, which happy feelings do not typically summon. Such changes, according to my research, come in four forms, which I call the 4 transmutations of life:
- Alchemy – Turning from Lead to Gold
- Esoteric – Phoenix Rising from the Ashes
- Christianity – The Dark Night of the Soul
- Biology – Metamorphosis (caterpillar to butterfly)
All the transmutation processes have the same message: you can’t be who you are now and get to higher levels of existence. In other words, you can’t be enlightened by being the old you. In fact, the old you can’t appreciate the new you – it’s like a 2-dimensional being trying to figure out the 3-dimensional one. And all these deep changes involve making the darkness conscious, relating and working with it in ways different from your past. These profound modifications have another common theme – surrendering, letting go, feeling the death of one’s ego and harnessing faith in something larger and wiser than you.
It also means that you use the dark side of you in a completely new way. It becomes your advisor, ally and source of new power.
A Teacher Clothed In Black
So, strengthen your optimism and at the same time pay attention to and befriend your dark emotions – see them as your Teachers. As we mentioned earlier, all the colours of our emotions help us to understand the different facets of ourselves and, therefore, more fully appreciate the power of the light within us, through darkness. After all, light is made up of different colours, including the dark ones.