The Importance of Negative Thinking

The necessity of the negative

by Deborah Atherton

We’re Americans of the 21st century, and we have lived with the exhortation to think positively since birth. If we can only succeed in getting rid of all that negative thinking which slows us down and keeps us from our birthright of success, wealth, and acclaim, we are told we will be happier and healthier people. Strangers on the street feel justified in ordering us to smile if our faces seem a little too gloomy or reflective. 

Keeping up all that positivity is hard work, and often ends up, I think, being a little counter-productive. Commanding ourselves to be positive is a bit like commanding ourselves not to think about elephants in pink skirts.  Part of the job of any person engaged in creative effort is to open ourselves to the dark, the negative, the sad, and the gloomy.  As Robert Woolfolk points out in his brilliant essay, The Power of Negative Thinking: Truth, Melancholia, and the Tragic Sense of Life, “I would submit negative thinking is not only valuable, but indispensable, and suggest that we give much too little attention to acknowledging, confronting, accepting, and perhaps even embracing suffering and loss.”  Or as William Goldman so succinctly stated in The Princess Bride: “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”

In this blog we do often offer ideas about reframing our ideas about our work so that we can keep doing it, and we very happily use any ideas positive psychology, of which we have a high opinion, can throw our way.  But the power of our creative and intuitive ideas and impulses often comes from a place inside us where the inherent tragedy of life is acknowledged and the pain of endings is ever-present.  And however witty and bright or even purely comedic our work, it has depth only as it on some level acknowledges those realities. 

We take on so many expectations of ourselves from the culture that surrounds us, no matter how hard we are trying to pay attention to the creative work and projects that matter to us—however few people manage to make a living or get major recognition in the arts or other creative professions or avocations, we all on some level expect that if we just approach it right, if we utter the right mantras, we will be one of the select.  But although success, wealth, and acclaim are lovely things to have, that’s not why we really undertook writing poetry, or sculpting, or film making, or designing buildings; we do it to answer our own deepest call to action, which is grounded in the part of ourselves that acknowledges the darkness as well as the light.

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2 Responses to The Importance of Negative Thinking

  1. Thank you so much for these important thoughts!

    It is often our capacity to feel our feelings – be they “negative” or “positive” that allows our art & creativity to have depth and meaning. It is in the shared human experience – the WHOLE human experience – that we find meaning.

    I prefer to let feelings be feelings and refrain from labeling them. When I am angry, I let myself feel angry. Then, I remember that I can choose what I feel next. Sometimes staying with anger or sadness is what I need so that I can move through it.

    Thank you again for this great reminder.

    • deborahatherton says:

      Thanks, Victoria, I like the way you said it – staying with anger or sadness is so often what we need to move through it. We do need to be full-spectrum human beings to accomplish anything creatively!

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