How do you deal with the dark times in your life? It might be anger when someone’s actions leave you feeling undermined, or guilt about not promptly following up on a promise you made to a client, or the hurt from a relationship breaking down. Do you try to avoid the pain? Or wish it away? Or could leaning into these feelings be the best approach for your wellbeing?
The truth is feelings of rejection, failure, self-doubt, loss, boredom or frustration are an inevitable part of life. Which is why researchers, Robert Biswas-Diener and Todd Kashdan in their book The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your Good Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment, have found that getting comfortable with the whole range of your emotions – the negative as well as the positive – is likely to help you become a better learner, to be more successful and to experience the deepest sense of wellbeing in life.
Having the psychological flexibility to sometimes draw on your darker range of emotions – like fear, anxiety and guilt – can help you to take action on what is important to you and enable you to respond to what’s unfolding in your life more effectively. It makes you whole.
The authors suggest that ‘wholeness’ involves developing distress tolerance, the ability to tolerate and withstand psychological discomfort. They propose you think of it like camping, where you don’t shy away from the discomfort of the experience, but see it as an inevitable part of the process, and work with it to open yourself up to the full possibilities the experience offers. Distress tolerance doesn’t just make you a better camper, it allows you to become stronger, wiser, mentally agile, and, most importantly happier in a more resilient, and durable way.
They suggest therefore, that while their work may seem an anti-happiness book, paradoxically it can offer you ways to build a far greater degree of joy than you could experience with a more direct approach to happiness. In fact they are not opposed to happiness, positivity, kindness, or mindfulness, and want you to embrace them, but offer an 80/20 rule-of-thumb, whereby you should be aiming to experience positive emotions roughly eighty per cent of the time, and to use your negative emotions the remaining twenty per cent.
So how can you use your negative emotions to develop more wholeness?
Robert and Todd give five guiding principles to live a whole life:
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable – in Western societies it seems we have become addicted to comfort and conveniences – large houses, modern appliances, fast cars and technology at our fingertips, and the same applies to our emotions. We have a tendency to regard uncomfortable emotions such as anger, uncertainty, guilt and giving up as things to be avoided at all cost. However, the more comfortable you try to make your life the less patient you can become with perceived problems.
Rather than trying to avoid this discomfort, aim to feel robust enough to withstand the emotional distress by choosing how much attention you give these emotions. Instead of dismissing them or judging them, simply observe your difficult emotions and remind yourself they are transient emotions that come and go. When you act as an observer as separate from the pain you become better at tolerating this pain.
- Lean into negative emotions – instead of labeling emotions exclusively as negative or positive, look for what is helpful or unhelpful in a given situation. Emotions such as anxiety, guilt and anger can be helpful signs that something important to you isn’t going right and needs your attention. Just the right amount of anxiety can help you discover and share solutions for risky situations. Guilt can alert you that you have hurt someone, and motivates you to be more socially sensitive and caring. And anger can increase your optimism, creativity, and give you the energy to take action on what matters. So it’s not the emotions themselves that are good or bad, it’s what you do with them that matters.
For example, anger doesn’t have to mean flying into an uncontrollable rage. But when you use your anger with an attitude of respect for the other person and slow down your response, it can be an effective tool to respond to upsetting situations. Research suggests visualizing your anger as a car speedometer, can help you take a few deep breaths, slow your reactions down and respond in the most helpful way to the situation.
- Be aware of happiness caveats – though research indicates the widespread benefits of happiness to your health, creativity, social ability and wellbeing, paradoxically trying too hard to be happy can undermine your everyday pleasures, engagement and meaning. When you anticipate you’ll be happy in a certain situation, you can be disappointed if it doesn’t work out how you envisaged. And it seems that the emotional highs in your life can make other events shine less brightly. Happiness can also interfere in your long-term success by making you too trusting, less persuasive, and less attentive to details when you are making complex decisions.
By minimizing the value you place on happiness in the short term, you can tailor your emotions to achieve the best outcome for the situation. For example, feeling a little less positive can boost your performance, when you need to undertake a task that is boring, requires attention to detail or analytical skills, and can be more effective when confronting a wrong, or persuading someone to change their mind.
- Harness mindlessness and mindfulness – a growing body of evidence suggests the benefits of mindfulness, where you pay attention to your inner thoughts and feelings and external happenings in the present moment. However, our minds are not always able to handle the amount of complex data that you are constantly faced with, and sometimes going on to ‘auto pilot’ can help you conserve your mental resources. For example, mindless doodling has been found to increase your recall of information, and mind wandering can lead to new creative ideas.
Research suggests that you can use a combination of mindless and mindful thinking to help achieve your goals and improve your decision making. First try spending an allocated amount of time mindfully considering the situation, then stopping, and switching your thoughts to a completely unrelated mindless activity for a period of time. Then return your thoughts to the dilemma and promptly make your decision. You can also tap into your unconscious mind by placing images or words around you that represent your goals.
- Tap into your darkside – we all have an element of Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy within us, that may show up at times when we are less than truthful, or manipulate others to get something done. Your darker behaviours can be evil, but they can also be a source of growth, meaning and beauty.
When you can draw on these and use them when required to be more assertive, determined and selfish for yourself and those most important to you, you can be a stronger, more resilient and agile leader. Rather than avoiding your own or other people’s dark traits – that may include risk taking, not following the status quo, and converting others to your ideas, relentlessly driving through changes- look for where these might be useful in getting a certain outcome.
How can you use your darker side to live a more whole life?