Positivity is your power. It operates like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. Negativity has a power. In fact, negativity has a stronger pull on us in evolutionary terms. Both positive emotions and negative emotions serve us. All emotions have a purpose.
What comes to mind when you hear,
“Don’t get so emotional”, or, ‘don’t go all emotional on me; “ or “he’s so emotional.”
Or, you hear people say, as I’ve heard said,
“She’s being so emotional! And I’m just saying the truth! I’m a realist.”
Both Positive Emotions and Negative Emotions Serve
All emotions serve us. You can be real and positive simultaneously — AND, you can also be real and negative simultaneously . Neither is inherently good or bad. They just are; and they serve us for BOTH our survival AND our flourishing.
Neuroscience teaches us that negative emotions and positive emotions activate different neural connections in the brain. They release different chemicals and overtime they influence our biochemistry and change us at the cellular level in different ways.
Below is a very personal story. The purpose is to show how negative emotions set us off on one course of action that impact our brains and bodies; and positive emotions set off a other another response. You’ll also observe that you can’t shift out of a state of negativity and despair until you begin to experience a shift to positive emotions towards hope.
If you’re feeling negative there’s most likely one solution you’re stuck on and it's hard to shift from that place of stuckness. When you experience positive emotions, you're more fluid and you'll find you are open to many more different possible directions that will help you with solutions to help solve your problems.
The brain lights up differently to different responses. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in the brain shows that different neural pathways light up when subjects experience negative responses versus positive. fMRI is a relatively new procedure that measures the tiny metabolic changes that take place when a certain part of the brain is activated.
Positive Emotions help with Problem Solving
Positive emotions light up the part of the brain that helps us see the big picture. To help people do that, you first induce some kind of positive experience, such remembering a past experience that was joyful or warming, or listening to music, or seeing pictures of loved ones; or you remind them of something that’s special to them or they want, then you are more likely to open them up to connect in a more resourceful way to the issues at hand and help with problem solving.
This is why accessing positive emotions is foundational to creating positive change.
My sister Skypes me in tears. She apologies for not being in touch but she's been in a really bad place and she’s calling to let me know she’s quitting her job. She blabbers in between sobs, that she's coping, she's bad feelings: she's overwhelmed, and feeling totally incompetent; she feels she's letting the side down; she feels a failure and wants to give up. She blurts out she's going in to work the next day to tell her boss she's quitting.
I'm in shock. She loves her job, after having a tough time starting out in life. She’d hated school. She got into the wrong crowd; did drugs, got expelled from one school. But she loved animals and started working at an Animal Hospital and Shelter. She loved it. She adopted cats and bred cats for years.
After several years being a vet’s assistance, she decided she wanted to become a nurse. But she didn’t have the educational qualifications to enter nursing and in those days – in the 1980s nursing training was actually conducted in the hospitals. So, she hired a math and English coach; got all the references she needed, passed the entry exams and thus began her nursing career of 25 plus years.
Years fly by and she ends up an Emergency Room nurse. Several weeks before this call when she's sobbing that she's quitting her job, she'd been offered a special job in a shiny new wing of the hospital. It was an honor to have been invited to apply and she was successfully awarded the job and therefore, she was being acknowledged very highly in being chosen to work in the shiny new hospital wing.
And now – three weeks into it, she wants to throw in the towel. She's feeling so bad that there's only one way out for her – quit – it’s the flight response of that old reptile brain. You fight or you flee. She has no fight left, as she's emotionally drained and physically and mentally exhausted.
I knew that to get her to shift from feeling totally powerless to finding some personal power was the only way that she could begin to imagine a different future.
Coaching Family is a Challenge
It was a tough call for me, because I think many of you will agree, coaching a family member is not easy. There’s a lot of emotional baggage you both carry around with you. Yet, my sister was in serious pain and it pained me to see her that way. I wanted so bad to help her.
So after acknowledging how she was feeling, and showing that I had been truly listening by reflecting back some of the words, and feelings she had been expressing, I asked the following questions bit by bit, allowing her the space to respond in her own time in between sobs, gasps and silences :
- In five years time, how do you want to look back on your almost 30 year nursing career?
- You’re so proud of your achievements, how do you want to remember all these efforts and successes in the future?
- How do you want people to remember you?
- What have you imagined about your own retirement and your own retirement party?
I could go down this line of inquiry because I know her history and I know that many of her friends were beginning to retire and they loved to party.
I started to notice a shift in her body and face – the crying stopped, long pauses of silence, some feeble sounds of acknowledgement about what she had achieved and how important her work was to her, because she really did love her work and the people she worked with and cared for.
Then like a bolt, she said, “I know what I can do”…..and she came up with her own solution. She would go to her boss the next day, not to quit, but ask to go back to her old job, which was still open to her. She had FORGOTTEN about that option. She was so overwhelmed, that the negative emotions that had shut her down and closed off options.
The solution was always there, but the negative energy she had spiraled down into had prevented her from possibilities thinking.
In hearing this story, you could add some of your own perspectives as you make sense of this story. Here are two common ones.
Fear of failure
Fear of failure is self-sabotage that prohibits us from taking action. If you think back to your own early childhood when you might have been fearful of raising your hand to contribute your ideas in the classroom situation because you if your were wrong, you were chastised and made to feel bad.
Those kinds of past experiences come up when you are in a negative state. Those memories of past pain tell you to stay safe. The hormone cortisol is released when under stress. And if you’re constantly stressed, the release of too much cortisol over time can lead to serious health issues.
And coupled with the biological responses, you have the psychological response from the old stories you tell yourself to keep keep you “safe”. Those little voices in your head that come from somewhere: “Play it safe. Stay Put! Leave the courageous acts to others!”
I’m reminded of a thought-provoking quote from Dr Mark Goulston “to be only safe, you’ll end up sorry.”
Fear of the unknown
Equally pervasive is another kind of fear, and it’s related. It’s fear of the unknown or fear of others; and it’s far more subtle; therefore, you may not be as aware of it; yet, it does stand in the way of your personal leadership and your ability to embrace any kind of change.
In the workplace, fear of the unknown and fear of others may be evidenced when a new person joins the team, a new leader is hired, or a new company takes over yours. You close off to new inputs and so you are not allowing yourself to be open to change.
This fear comes from the need for self-preservation. You may fear others who may not be like you, or who have different perspectives that you don’t yet understand. This fear absolutely gets in the way of building relationships, and slows down progress.
To sum up, here are some facts about the different purposes of both positive and negative emotions that come out of this story. When you are in a negative, depressed, anxious, fearful state, you close yourself off from seeing there are many possible directions you can go in, or choices you can make, or options you can consider.
You have to be able to access the positive feelings before you can have any positive thoughts, let alone take positive action.
Positive emotions expand your awareness and help you come up with, different possibilities for action.
Positive emotions get people to see the big picture.
Once you induce something positive into a situation,then you're more open to find solutions and be a shining example of an agent for positive change.