Welcome to this edition of our featured therapist Blog, where Psychodynamic Psychotherapist Dianne Pole explores the creative importance of negative thinking in an era of positive psychology. While we are driven by recommendations around us to ‘think positively’, do we really need to completely dismiss our more negative reflections?
‘Negativity is the enemy of creativity’, David Lynch
I’ve noticed that there seems to be a lot of encouragement around positive thinking at the moment, whether in self-help books and inspirational quotes designed to keep people up beat and confident, or warning quotes similar to the one above which disregards anything that might challenge a self-assured, creative attitude to life, including negative people. Contrary to the popular persuasion towards optimism, my work as a Psychodynamic Psychotherapist often puts me in direct contact with people who still feel plagued by their negative thoughts – ordinary people who desperately want to rid themselves of a pessimistic attitude that they fear will reduce and isolate them. So, what happens to those who can’t easily shake off pessimism? Rather than kill creativity as Lynch suggests … is it possible to allow room for a creative empathic curiosity surrounding negativity?
Being imaginative and compassionately exploring worries, fears and anxieties in a contained therapeutic space can offer another dimension into understanding. If a negative voice is allowed to be heard, these kinds of thoughts can tell us a lot about what we value most in our life.
Thankfully popular culture does occasionally seek to explore ideas of negativity in a more open-minded way. The value of negative thinking is illustrated nicely in the animated Disney Film ‘Inside Out’. Here we see the main character – a young girl called Riley – struggling to come to terms with difficult changes in her life. The film’s twist is that we see this struggle not through the eyes of her conscious mind, but through the interaction of her internal feelings and drives, represented by distinct characters such as Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust, each with their own voice and motivations.
One of the central themes of the film is the tension between the characters of Joy and Sadness, with the conflict between them driving a division between the other emotions, and causing a potential catastrophe with a collapse of the internal world they inhabit. Joy, fearing that Riley’s sadness will contaminate her happy memories, spoil her mood and block her ability to feel happy and confident, attempts to suppress Sadness’ influence and relegate her role in any decision making. We see that this leaves Riley unable to process the changes happening in her external world, and in fact deepens the division and dissonance between the other emotions. This ultimately leads the internal world these characters inhabit to begin to crumble, putting all the emotions in peril.
Ultimately, the other emotions begin to realise that Riley’s sadness has an important role to play. When it is acknowledged and given a role, Joy realises that Riley’s sadness needs acknowledgment of the loss of valued friends. Riley’s sadness becomes the vehicle into her internal world, giving insight into what she holds important in her life and what she is grieving for – a sense of belonging, with love, support and friendship. There is a richer understanding of Riley’s identity as a person, and further insight into what she might need in order to feel better again. Towards the end of the film, the audience – along with Riley’s other emotions – see her enjoying a sense of belonging in a familiar environment with new friends.
Psychodynamic work can reflect Riley’s internal journey to reattach the value of her emotions. Rather than avoiding emotional expression, it prefers to explore the unconscious internal world of the client with compassion, helping them to make sense of their ‘negative’ feelings like sadness, anger and disappointment, instead of trying to sidestep them.
In a similar way to Inside Out, Psychodynamic Psychotherapy endeavors to explore the unconscious meaning behind negativity and allow for a compassionate rather than dismissive response. This can help clients to process difficult feelings, memories and internal conflict, and sometimes allow them to rebuild their internal world more robustly, with all their own internal characters integrated and working together.
Not only does negative thinking offer us a valuable insight into the dynamics of our internal worlds, there have been some studies which show that it might play an important role in motivating us to achieve our goals.
In the recent Radio 4 series ‘The Power of Negative Thinking’, Oliver Burkeman finds that an exclusive focus on positive thinking can actually hinder a person’s drive and lessen their ability to achieve their goals. In a group experiment of thirsty students, half were given a drink and the other half were left to fantasise about quenching their thirst. The results showed that just imagining a cool drink felt so satisfying in the moment, that it lessened the participants’ desire to actively go in search of refreshment.
Similarly, further research showed that university graduates who envisioned the perfect job in their field ultimately sent out fewer applications, and two years later would attain jobs with a lower wage. Interestingly this research seems to suggest that a preoccupation with success, although briefly satisfying in the present can actually lower the motivation needed to succeed long term.
Negativity on the other hand – while often promoted as harmful in self-help literature and even some modes of therapy – can actually have the potential to promote well-being.
Russ Harris a psychotherapist who sees the benefits of negativity, explains that at one time in evolutionary history it would have been in Homo sapiens’ interests to monitor danger. As he points out, we are the descendants of those who were cautious and survived. Negativity then can keep us focused towards our end goals, especially if we emphatically recognise our limitations and maintain a realistic approach to what is achievable.
But what happens if our fears are unfounded in real terms, like a fear of the dark, or more unusual fears such as, for example, Novocain never wearing off after a trip to the dentist? From a psychodynamic perspective, I would be more inclined to be thinking with the client about the feelings in order to understand where they came from. Perhaps in this example, about the vulnerability that comes with being unable to speak, and being reliant on others to recognise a need, and respond appropriately.
In my experience working with clients over the years, it appears to me that very often it is not the fear of what might happen, but rather the fear of what has already been experienced and unconsciously remembered that makes it so real and difficult to let go of.
A child might lay in the dark imagining monsters under her bed, but she knows that she’s not allowed to go downstairs, and might lack the maturity to articulate her feelings even if she did. Or maybe her parents are asleep in the dead of night, unintentionally oblivious to her anxieties, yet they still leave her feeling incredibly trapped and frightened. In her world, monsters are very real, and fear is a reasonable and rational response – it serves as a protective function.
Psychodynamic Psychotherapy recognises that feelings don’t have any sense of time – their only function is to feel and motivate us to respond. When our mind and body feel vulnerable again in the present, all our anxieties from a point in the past can come flooding back, attempting to serve the same protective purpose they once did. The monsters – now taking the form of things that are familiar to us in the present, for example, ostracism, loneliness, approbation, anger, hopelessness – can become real once again. Sometimes the monsters in our past might not have even been so imaginary, and our feelings in the present might become all the more overwhelming for it. Regardless, the anxiety we feel in the present can be the same one we felt as trapped and frightened children, or perhaps teenagers or adults who were unable to process an overwhelming situation. By being able to explore in therapy where this anxiety might come from, we can begin to free it from the past, and rationalise it in a new and more helpful way.
Helping clients to explore and understand their internal negative narrative along with internal conflicts and their possible origins and triggers can offer them an opportunity to challenge their fears from the perspective of the present. Psychodynamic Psychotherapy is by its nature a difficult, in-depth look into our own vulnerability, but it also offers insight and choice, and it can be amazing how liberating new choices can be in the here and now when our negativity is understood.
Additional Interesting links:
The Optimism Bias (Ted Speech by Tali Sharot):
Mental Contrasting of a Negative Future with a Positive Reality Regulates State Anxiety by Gunnar Brodersen and Gabriele Oettingen:
Happiness is a glass half empty by Oliver Burkeman:
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