When you make a change to incorporate more positivity in your life, all sorts of things begin to happen. The situations you might expect – higher enjoyment, opportunities for professional growth, satisfaction in relationships, and more – increase in frequency. But along with all this positivity, you might be surprised by new forms of negativity, too. There is a paradox within the positivity continuum: more positivity can seem to actually ramp up negativity in your life. This bears a look.
Positive people can be easy targets. Shola, of The Positivity Solution, shares that he instinctively knew this. Fear of dealing with criticism from nattering nabobs of negativity (hat tip to the awesome William Safire for fabulous alliteration) kept this talented writer and influencer on positivity from publishing a single word on the subject for three whole years!
If you’ve been stuck in a period of negativity for a while, it’s only natural that those around you might be surprised and confused by an increase in positivity. Your positive change countermands their impression of you. They’ve slotted you as a certain type of person, in a certain place along the positivity continuum, and you’ve upset their apple cart. You might on the receiving end of all kinds of buzzkill, such as, “Stop pretending” or “Don’t be such a Pollyanna, it’s totally fake.” “That’s not who you really are.” “Be realistic.”
Whose reality should we be using? After all, serenity to the spider is chaos to the fly, true? All this seemingly negative reaction is somewhat easier to take if you understand more about the positivity continuum. Jeff T. Larsen, a researcher at Texas Tech who focuses on “affective processes including emotion, attitudes, and subjective well-being,” has taken an extensive look at the relationship between positivity and negativity. Larsen believes the concept of a bipolar continuum may be too simplistic, but has chosen to investigate “how the same affective stimulus can elicit different affective reactions in different situations or among different people.”
Larsen has found asymmetric effects in physical evidence of negativity bias using brainwave data and skin conductance responses. Larsen’s research covers both personality types and situations. For example, his research revealed skin conductance responses to negativity are prolonged in individuals with higher levels of neuroticism. Other research showed negativity bias is weakened in benign, as opposed to threatening, circumstances. Larsen also contests prominent theories which suggest opposite emotions are mutually exclusive. In a series of research projects on mixed emotions, Larsen found that the effect on your well-being of what you have depends upon your personal construct. So, overall, Larsen’s research would appear to support the notion that a person’s valuation of what is positive vs negative depends upon how positive or negative they themselves are at any given moment.
Is recognizing negativity ego-based? According to some, if we pay attention to negativity, we are indulging our ego. If we choose to focus on positive, according to others, we may be engaging in denial. The solution to this conundrum? Just stop already with it. Understand that very few of us are going to completely succeed in total non-attachment, although I personally believe it is valiant to attempt. Even the most sage Buddhist believes that non-attachment doesn’t preclude the propensity for joy.
How does the positivity continuum relate to your current experience? Are you feeling put upon for being “too negative”? Understand that from a positive person’s point of view, you may very well seem to be. Likewise, if someone is critical of you for being “too positive,” it’s their perspective. This kind of comparative method is really all we have going for us, physiologically and psychologically, if prevailing research is to be believed. While criticism arrives in one of two forms: constructive and destructive, the delineating factor is the mindset of the critic. An insecure, defensive person may engage in destructive criticism. This is where the concept of non-attachment in the receiver can be beneficial. It is only when we emotionally attach to negative criticism, as Shola feared he would, that it can do us harm. Conversely, constructive criticism will illuminate ways in which we can do and be better; it usually comes from someone who is genuine about wanting to help.
When I researched negativity bias (here), it was sobering to learn that we are hard-wired in our most primitive brain function to devote 10 times the amount of attention to negative events as we do the positive. Put it this way: one shitty year, and it will take you ten good ones to neutralize the processing impact. I don’t know about you, but if that’s true, I’ve got a lot of positive inputs to make before I even approach neutral.
My goal (surprise!) is to make positive improvements in my life. Nowadays, I can’t abide hanging around in a slump for long. I’ve felt hopeless and depressed for extended periods in my past. I’ve felt trapped by circumstances in relationships that weren’t good for me. All of this sucks and I can’t imagine anyone saying they enjoy it. Yet, paradoxically, there are plenty of people who habitually default to staying stuck and constantly complaining. Where’s the fun in that? You’re right: there isn’t any. But that, of course, is all perspective.
Recently, I’ve observed that negative situations and people will self-select out of your life if you are making positive changes along the continuum. These may be unanticipated consequences that surprise you. Don’t mourn their loss! This is ultimately a good thing, particularly if you have empathic tendencies. It means you do not have to take on their problems, you need not overly concern yourself with destructive criticism, and you are not required to deplete your energy dealing with issues other than your own. You are at a different point along the continuum. This is what is, and where you should be is your decision.
It is not my goal, nor is it my responsibility, to make everyone happy, or even to live up to their expectations of me if those expectations conflict with my own. It has been hard enough to make positive changes in myself. If I can inspire someone else toward more positivity, that’s great! If someone feels I am “too positive,” inferring that I am living in La-La Land of the Unrealistic or campaigning to be Queen of Denial, there is very little I can, or am going to, do to change that impression.
My intention is to incorporate even more positivity in life. I will continue to share what I find meaningful and inspiring, and squeeze the most out of each moment with which I’ve been blessed. Given my past personal experience, this objective is critical toward achieving a more desirable balance.