How Confronting Your Darkest Impulses Can Ultimately Help You Grow
Is the age of relentless positivity taking a toll on our mental health?
There’s much to be said about the power of positivity. Well-placed inspirational quote, the heartwarming videos, the euphoria-inducing pep talks. In a culture where bullying is finally gaining recognition as a pervasive, serious issue and in which we're pushing the discourse forward on topics like body positivity—keeping things on the up and up can go a long way.
But of course, too much of a good thing is never a good thing, and when positivity edges into the territory of feeling relentless, it can have unpredictable, adverse effects—especially when it comes to assessing your own mental state and wellbeing with the honesty it deserves.
On the flip side to that #lovemylife photo and that #blessed post, there’s often something hanging out in the shadows—a feeling of inadequacy, perhaps, or impostor syndrome. Guilt, rage, jealousy—you name it, we’ve all been there, because such is the nature of being a living, breathing human being.
But here’s the good news: It’s OK to have shitty, dark thoughts. We all do, and to paraphrase Dr. Freud, repression works pretty much 0 percent of the time.
Numerous studies have found that accepting negative emotions—as opposed to attempting to squash them with rainbows and butterflies—can be more effective in maintaining your peace of mind.
One study conducted at the University of California Berkeley and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded that the more you accept and acknowledge your darker thoughts and impulses, the more you’re able to adjust to stressful events over time.
We talked with two women about that precise process and how looking their negative emotions in the face eventually helped them to cope:
‘It’s not pretending the turd of a rejection is actually a triumph’
"I came close to actually busting out a complete and total lie a month or two ago, in the wake of a break-up. Both of us are alcoholics, but while I’m nearing my two-year mark, prefer the medical term “alcohol use disorder,” and avoid AA at all costs, he, on the other hand, has been trying to 'work the program' for years—and relapsing nearly every week.
Shortly after we split for good, I had this intoxicating desire to text him and say, 'I drank again,' shattering my long stretch of sobriety with that same message I’d received so many heartbreaking times from him.
I had literally zero intention or desire to actually drink. But it was the idea of it. I wanted him to feel the implosion I had felt, wanted to serve him the destruction and hopelessness he had offered to me. I wanted, in short, to fuck with him.
The only thing that stopped me after days of wanting to was the lie of it: Our city is too small, and what about the internet? Future milestone celebrations, recovery proclamations—those posts would look like lies.
Once I acknowledged the untenable nature of my emotional scheme, however, as well as the sadness beneath it, it was easy to let go.
I recently heard it said like this: If you don’t let a painful emotion live, how is it ever going to die? Suppressing, running from, pretending it’s something else—that all just prolongs the suffering. Acknowledging isn’t an act of polishing. It’s not responding to someone’s loss and grief with an 'everything happens for a reason,' or an 'at least it wasn’t someone in your family.'
It’s not pretending the turd of a rejection is actually a triumph ... Acknowledging is simply noticing the pain—how’s it feel? It feels like this. It feels like this. And then it changes."
Chorel, 29, bookstore events coordinator
‘You are not your thoughts’
"I have struggled for years in my adult life with anxiety, depression and OCD. I have tried medication, therapy, 'positive thinking' and anything else that has been offered to me. And after many years of analyzing my brain, I have learned so much about myself, what helps, and what doesn’t help. And part of what I’ve learned is that simply trying to 'think positive' is firmly in the not-helping category for me.
Before I was able to find a specific therapist to help me see my thoughts as just that—thoughts—I would let them take over.
Other people in my life would try to help me by trying to get me to think positive, or showing me that what I was thinking was irrational. But this never helped, because it made me feel that by having the thoughts in the first place, I was doing something wrong.
What has helped, however, is letting the thoughts be whatever they are, without judging or labeling them. If I ever do get stuck, I write them out and say them out loud to myself over and over again. This gives them less power because I either realize how absurd they sound, or I get so tired of saying them that my brain gets bored and moves on.
Here’s a sample thought my brain will issue: 'If you keep texting that person you like, something bad will happen to someone you love.' Good times! Although I know that it’s completely irrational, it’s still a thought that can make my brain go into overdrive, and once it occurs, I know I have three choices:
1) I can obsess over it and feel bad about myself or fearful every time I text the new person in my life, 2) I can stop texting the person all together, or 3) I can treat it as it is, which is just a thought, and keep on doing what makes me happy.
You are not your thoughts; you have thoughts. You also have free will and the choice to do whatever you want in life that makes you happy. If they become too intrusive, write them down, say them out loud until they are just slurs of sounds that mean nothing, laugh at yourself, realize how strange words are, and go get your happy."
Karen, 35, aesthetician
Words: Deena Drewis
Photo: Daria Kobayashi Ritch