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The Positivity Paradox and the Suppression of “Negative” Emotions

Lots of press about positivity these days. Dr. PurpleMandala is positive about that. What she likes is that beneath it all and fundamentally, the premise is that you are in control of how you experience the world and thus, how you perceive the world. No one else. That does not mean only experiencing positive emotions. It means experiencing the full range of your emotions to understand and perceive your world so that you can navigate it toward your purpose. Your emotions are data and that data is telling you something. From this viewpoint, how can any emotion be negative?

In her book “Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life,” Harvard Medical School professor and psychologist Susan David explains the reflexive ways we handle emotion. She says we have a “Tyranny of Positivity” that not only encourages us to ignore emotions like sadness, anger, despair, and grief but that also we live in a culture that actively promotes vehicles to suppress them.

The relentless expectation to be positive inundates our worklife, homelife, and innerlife. We deny or avoid emotions that might indicate something other than life is great. When we can’t ignore them on our own, our culture gives us many things to distract us: media, alcohol, and drugs top this list. It makes for a cold and lonely world where each one of us believes that we are the only one to recognize the breakability of our existence and the grief that comes from losing people and things for which we care about as we move through life.

There is a paradox for leaders embedded in the Tyranny of Positivity. If a leader is to be relentlessly optimistic to inspire and engage the team, how can they also be authentic without displaying their less socially acceptable emotions, too? This is the essence of the Positivity Paradox. Research has indicated that Hope, Self Confidence, Optimism, and Resilience, in combination, have the strongest relationship with both satisfaction and performance. Sometimes humans, even leaders(!), must move through a murky pool of less socially acceptable emotions. How do you acknowledge your emotional state? How do you identify all your emotions, not merely the positive ones, in a productive and insightful way to add to your innerlife? Can you wrestle with all your emotions of your innerlife? And our innerlife positively affects our worklife and homelife. What are you going to do about it?

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