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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?

What is Your Internal State?

As a wise colleague once said, “If you want to find something on the outside, you must first find it on the inside.” Or, in other words, “wherever you go, there you are,” a saying popularized by Buckaroo Bonzai. While coaching executives and with my ongoing work with myself, the truth is that our internal state is the most important aspect of our lives to attend to and manage. And we can manage it. By doing so, we can direct how we perceive our world, what we get done, and what (and who) we attract.

What is your internal state of being? How do you feel right now? How do you usually feel? What is the noise inside your head?  Are you covering up negative feelings with food, alcohol or some more sophisticated gamesmanship where others are the blame for your problems? With what are you surrounding yourself?  With whom? How are your family and friends with their internal state? What is your purpose? Check-in with yourself and others, you might be surprised how you’re feeling. You can change how you think about things. Your reaction to the world is in your control.

A lotus is the most powerful of flowers as it makes its way through the murkiness to the light. Much like our hidden feelings, they too must make their way to the light. Without this process, they remain ever present, controlling us, sometimes choking and stifling us in ways that we don’t understand and keeping us from seeing the light.

Native Wisdom Part 1: If you do something long enough, you must like it

My Father used to say, “If you do something long enough, you must like it.” These were wise words from a part Cherokee truck driver, born in the hollers of Western North Carolina. His belief was that life is full of mysteries and paradoxes, and that people inevitably did what they wanted. He also believed that people’s behavior spoke louder than their words and that while free will was everyone’s right, few took advantage of it.

The paradox he was speaking to was the difference between people’s professed intentions and their actions, or more clearly stated the difference between what people said they wanted and how they acted. He was fascinated by this observation and so came up with his own explanations of human behavior, independent of psychology or any other academic schooling. For these nuggets of Native Wisdom, I’m eternally grateful and I’ll share them in this blog.

Let’s take an example. A friend of mine was upset about how her children and their families have come to dominate her life. She repeatedly complained about this dynamic and conveyed dismay at how they routinely took advantage of her. While her children, now in their 20’s, are able to manage their own lives, they instead relied on their mother to care for many of their wants and needs. She took care of their pets, fixed lunches, and loaned them money. They also repeatedly come and go from her house at all hours, with the expectation that she take care babysitting, washing their laundry and making them meals. She claimed that she disliked her children’s behavior, yet when observing her actions, the contrary seemed to be true. Her actions shouted that she loved being involved and relied upon. According to my Father, though she claimed that she was unhappy with the situation, it was obvious she didn’t want things to change because she liked things as they were.

Since she had known my Father and his many insights, I quoted him one day, during a visit. In the middle of one of her complaining sessions, I imitated his Southern accent and his wry sense of humor to provide some gentle teasing about her dilemma. She laughed, thankfully.

While, she loved her children and deeply wanted to be connected with and involved in their lives, being intimately connected on a daily basis was proving to be stressing for her. Both her and her children had learned behaviors – habits that had been developed years ago that met the needs of the times for everyone in the family. But now, though she had evolved, and her children had evolved, both still lived their lives through the behavioral system that each had outgrown.

My friend knew that change in the family dynamic was needed, but changing is hard. Why? The behaviors people learn, are learned for a reason. Behaviors develop because, even if only temporarily, they work to provide an answer to a problem. Then, new problems are encountered, and we try to force fit an old solution on a new circumstance. When we become conscious of this, it forces us to confront the fact that what was once the best that we could do, is no longer good enough. This causes pain, so we avoid it be letting the awareness of this go unconscious again. The paradox is that it’s the pain that provides the space for growth. If we are aware of what no longer serves us and could sit with the pain just long enough, we can change our behavior, so that we can create better alignment between what we say and what we do.

Working through her behavioral system was tough, but she was up for it. She spoke with her children and has re-contracted behaviors and boundaries and unexpectedly positive changes have enriched all their lives. All thanks to gentle Native Wisdom from my Father, “if you do something long enough, you must like it.”

How about you? What is no longer serving you well? What actions are not aligned with what you love? What can you change today to bring you closer to your real potential? It might be painful to examine, but you’re up for it, right?

The Real Indian Experience

When I was offered the opportunity to work and live in India for a couple of years, it was the proverbial offer I could not refuse. I had been seeking professional and personal transformation, and what better place? The exotic, colourful, and transcendent images that had been built in my mind’s eye over the years about India danced before me – it was like a visual siren call. I had to go.

Reality is almost always different than our dreams, especially when it comes to personal transformation. Sometimes we seek it, sometimes it seeks us. Most often we meet transformation someplace between what we thought we wanted and something quite outside our comprehension.

India is so intense that people believe they get her quickly. This is because she overwhelms the senses so utterly and completely, even on the shortest of trips. I listen to other business travellers talk expertly about her, as if though they know her intimately, all the while staying at 5-star hotels and working with the best and the brightest of the Indian business world. And I also listen silently and somewhat proudly, because of the knowledge that the sliver of shimmering heat, pulsating energy, eye stinging aroma and multi-tiered chaos that they sense through the hotel window or while being driven from meeting to meeting is only the beginning of understanding the depth of diversity -and the difference- that is India. Visiting India is much different than living in India. And I lived in Mumbai, which is India on steroids.

I am profoundly grateful for my time in India and for the person I am as a result. I am, at my core, different than the woman who went there. What follows are the critical lessons that I learned that affect how I view the worldnow. To me, this was the real “Indian Experience.” It is not a story of spiritual transcendence, or a story of developing a razor sharp commercial edge through working in the emerging market. It is more a story of easing into myself and the world, beyond how I defined myself as a person or as a citizen of the US and western world. Paradoxically, this did indeed lead to somewhat of a spiritual awakening and heightened my commercial edge. These are some of the lessons I learned:

  • Relax, it will come to you. Our real estate broker said this when he sensed I was particularly frustrated with trying to execute my western style, lengthy to-do list. I wanted everything done, as you can imagine, now. So I tried to relax and this is what I learned: In India, merely talking to others about what I needed would set a social network in play whereby the things you needed found you. This is how we found our maid, got our car fixed, the mold in our flat removed, found French Vanilla Coffee Mate, and taco shells. I found this process mysterious and amazing. I now employ it everywhere in the world and it works.
  • Nurture your entourage. Most people who work in what is traditionally called “the middle class” and higher in India have an entourage that consists of at least two people: your head maid and your driver. The maid controls your household and can save your life. Your driver controls your “outside-the-house” experience and can save your life, too. This can be the beginning of a empire enabling you to accomplish and acquire most anything available in India, legal or not. One important tip: choose a really good maid and make sure she, your driver and any other person you hire permanently, or temporarily, knows she is in charge. There is a hierarchy that it is best to work with and not fight against. At times, I felt the chain of the command in our flat was Maggie, our maid, then Jim, my partner, then me and then our driver Michael. Our entourage increased by 20 sometimes depending on the task or project. We were brought in to solve major and minor conflicts over roles, processes and outcomes and were seen as benefactors to a slew of family members, activities and holidays. Being American, it was hard for us to position ourselves in a hierarchy, but the learning was that it really was not about us, but about how we could make life easier for those around us, and thus, we found our lives were easier, too.
  • Getting things done is about setting critical priorities. Activity and getting things done can be seen as the same thing in India. Many times, we had to follow up innumerable times to get things completed. Often we would get a lots of running around, people quickly walking to and fro, looking intently at the water heater, the electrical socket, the mold, etc., and then more talking and explaining. Yet often things never quite got fixed. Our conclusion was that people honestly thought they were doing their best to help us, but did not know how. Saying “no” was not an option and even considered rude. Thus the continued swirl of activity without resolution until we eventually gave up on things that were less important. These things were taken off the to-do list. And that was getting it done.
  • Structure is a good thing. Agreement does not necessarily mean something will happen. I had many intense conversations with people and it would seem we would unanimously agree on what to do and the next steps. I was use to everyone immediately beginning to work on our agreed task and next steps. What I learned was that I had to set clear timelines, boundaries and schedules, and inject rigorous follow-up into the process. In other words, I had to work to get things to work. Otherwise, these commitments seemed to be tossed out to the vast social network to get done by other means. If at all.
  • Now I really know what resilience means. The lack of infrastructure makes doing anything in Mumbai difficult. Going to and from work, running errands or even attending social events becomes a struggle. Yes, the roads are rough with holes. Yes, the traffic is horrible. People squeeze five lanes into a two lane road all while people are walking in the middle of the street, holding a hand out indicating they are going to walk in front of an oncoming car without even a mere glance. But there is also an emotional cost of being on the road in Mumbai that can tear on your soul. The sights, the sounds, the smells are riveting, startling, intoxicating and shaming. I would sometimes imagine what the power of India would be should all the infrastructure issues be magically fixed overnight. The power and resiliency that I saw on a daily basis to merely survive could be released into something quite powerful and transcendent.
  • Health is everything. Since I had completed land and water survival courses in the military and travelled throughout the world, my belief was that I was physically resilient, and as a former naval officer, pretty tough. Yet, I had never lived daily within a crowded population with easy access to antibiotics. This environment creates new and highly resilient strains of some of mankind’s long-term diseases like the flu and TB. During my first six months in Mumbai, I had illnesses ranging from pneumonia to an atypical mycobacterium related to both TB and leprosy, along with numerous cases of food poisoning. I dropped 20 pounds in two months and at a certain point could hardly walk. Eventually, I figured out how best to live in Mumbai. Now, I seem super-resilient to whatever bug my American colleagues pass around to one another. My Doctor, who is Indian, says I could go any place in the world now because I have honed my immune system in one of the toughest places. I have a new found appreciation for healthy eating, thinking and existing that I devote considerable time to because I truly know what it means to be sick.
  • American politics look even more ridiculous than I thought they did. Perspective and distance makes us look even sillier and small minded. Enough said.

Like most personal transformations, mine is not what I expected. Through my physical, emotional and intellectual changes, I learned from India in some way to be more myself and let other expectations I had about myself go. There was a sharpening of focus on what was most important and a releasing of things that were not so important. After having lived in an environment where many of my American friends would find horribly intolerable, I found myself truly appreciating, for the first time in my life, the gifts that had come to me merely by being born where I had been born. Without many creature comforts, I found comfort in my relationships. I cared less about anything in popular media save my FB account. I have been back in the US about two months and I still do not know the latest movies or television shows, and the recent rising stars all seem the same to me. The pressure to buy, buy, buy, is never ending, and I understand that I actually don’t need very much, just my health and my relationships. I had searched for peace of mind my entire life. For many, there is peace in this world anyplace you go if you know how to get it. For me, it was through the chaos, drama and the kaleidoscope of my Indian experience that I found peace for the first time in my life.

Written March 2013

The doors of perception.

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”
Aldous Huxley

When I first heard about The Doors in the 70’s as a grade schooler, I had no idea why a band would name themselves after something so simple as a door. I pondered what kind of door could inspire a band? Was it the pure simplicity of opening and shutting a piece of a wall that was so compelling? Was it a brown door, a white door or a glass door? And then I completely forgot my questions as I trudged through my teenage years reading gothic romances, historical fiction, and Mad magazine. Then, I discovered Carlos Castaneda. Reading his first three books felt deliciously adult and shifted the way I perceived my life and how I wanted to live. From that point on, I was mystified by perception and how different people saw things so completely differently. This is when I also realized I wanted to be a psychologist. Perception has been a lifelong muse ever since. One of my most treasured quotes from him is this: “The trick is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.” To me this is the essence of perception. We determine how we look at things, and we must do this consciously, and whether or not you do think consciously, the work of life is the same. Why be miserable? Change your perception of what is happening.


If only it were so easy, but perhaps it is just that easy. Having witnessed death in family and friends where long-term illnesses wreaked havoc on people I loved, it is easy to slide into despair and rant about how hard life can be, how cruel a fate, how physically painful, and how fickle it is in whom it blesses with health, and whom it does not. My family and friends chose to be happy even during horrendous and challenging struggles, perhaps because they knew their life was so short. Could I not do the same? It was a matter of perception, what is real and what is not.


As an executive coach, my own life experiences cannot help but inform how I work with clients. Perception, my muse, is often the blind spot that hurts many leaders. Their ability to “see things as they are” is difficult when they only see things from their perspective. A leader’s ability to integrate multiple viewpoints and perceptions into a mosaic whole that makes sense is an art that few master. Sometimes I feel my job is to eliminate “how did I not see that?” from my client’s expressions. I do this by helping them to open their own doors of perception about who they are, what matters most, and by expanding their understanding of their current realities through multiple perspectives.

Oh, and The Doors? I get it now.