Imagine yourself living two million years ago in a hunter-gatherer society. As you forage for blueberries in the late summer harvest, you’re so focused on flirting with your sweetheart that you don’t notice the wolves lurking in the brush only 30 feet away.
Seven seconds later you’re dead. Those beautiful children you were dreaming of will never even be conceived.
You’re dead because you made the fatal mistake of focusing on the positive and ignoring the negative.
Negative Emotions Suck, But Denial Sucks Worse
Like all mammals, we’re genetically programmed to avoid or reduce pain – both physical and emotional. Most of the time this works reasonably well. We get burned by a fire and we learn to avoid touching red hot logs. We wake our parents at dawn on a Sunday morning, they scold at us, and we learn to let them sleep in on weekends.
But we humans have found a shortcut to avoiding pain that never turns out well: denying the pain and stuffing it down into our bodies. I’ve covered how we do this in other articles in The Science of Body-Psyche series, specifically in Denial: Your Best Compensation Or Worst Enemy? and How Emotions Get Trapped In The Body, so I won’t revisit that ground here.
Suffice it to say we tend to deny our negative emotions. As another form of denial, many people try to focus on the positive instead. This is normal, but there’s one huge problem…
The Dark Side Always Wins
Although we can push negative emotions out of our conscious awareness, they are still active and they drive our thoughts, feelings and actions at an unconscious level.
At any given time we may have a bunch of negative and positive things going on in our brain and body. For example, at a big Thanksgiving dinner you may be happy to see your mom, but mad at her for making you sleep on the couch. You may enjoy talking with dad about sports, but resent him for being rude to your last significant other, you may be happy about the pecan pie you brought, upset with your cousin for forgetting the cranberry sauce, pleased with the way the turkey turned out, annoyed with your brother for the time he used you as a tackling dummy in football practice when you were five, and so on.
Although family reunions tend to bring out the worst, even in normal situations we’re often awash with a complex mix of conflicting positive and negative feelings.
Here’s the thing. Neuroscience shows us that the dark side always wins.
What exactly do I mean by this? Well, when we have conflicting feelings, the negative ones always have more influence on our beliefs and actions.
Here’s some neuroscience to back up that claim. The amygdala is tiny but is the most influential region in your brain. It’s home to our most powerful conditioned responses, and has more connections to other brain regions than any other brain structure. The amygdala can put us into fight or flight mode in a fraction of a second. Research has shown that the amygdala has twice as many neurons dedicated to tracking negative experiences than positive ones. The most influential region in the brain is focused on the negative, two to one!
Research in linguistics matches this neuroscience finding. The English language has about twice as many words for negative emotions as it does for positive ones. We also have twice as many words describing negative personality traits as positive traits.
Study after study has shown that our brains are wired to pay more attention to the negative than positive, that we remember negative events more easily than positive and that negative programming in our brain is more powerful and longer-lasting than positive programing.
So why are we wired to be so negative?
Why The Dark Side Is More Important
Back to that pack of wolves that ate you for lunch two million years ago. Well, obviously they didn’t eat you, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article. The fact that you and your ancestors were not eaten by wolves is the point of the wolf story. Your ancestors were so focused on negative threats that they avoided being eaten long enough to procreate… through thousands of generations, all down the line to your birth.
Evolutionary psychologists say that this explains why we are hard wired to have such a negative focus. If we miss a negative threat, like being eaten by a wolf, then we’re out of the gene pool. In contrast, if we miss a positive cue, like the adoring smile your sweetheart gave you, then that’s not a life or death situation.
Therefore, we’ve evolved to focus on the negative more than the positive and memories of negative events influence our behavior most strongly.
Positive Thinking Cannot Overcome Negative
But what about positive thinking? So much self-help, new age psychobabble and The Secret say that we have to think positive thoughts to have positive outcomes.
The cult of positive thinking is partially right but largely wrong.
It’s true that people who focus on positive goals rather than things they want to avoid are more successful. It’s true that people who regularly write gratitude journals have better health and better relationships. It’s true that optimists are more successful entrepreneurs than pessimists.
When optimism is used as a form of denial, as another way to avoid our true feelings, then it is bad for your health and success.
Worse still, trying to force positive thoughts on top of negative ones can make people even more unhappy.
We cannot deny our evolutionary programming.
The Hero’s Journey
So what’s the way out of the trap of the negative?
Carl Jung, one of the founding fathers of psychology, has the answer. Rather than denying our negative thoughts and feelings, we must face and transform them.
No one should deny the danger of the descent… And let those who go down the sunset way do so with open eyes, for it is a sacrifice, which daunts even the gods. Yet every descent is followed by an ascent.
– Carl Jung
Mythologist Joseph Campbell called this path “The Hero’s Journey.” It is essential for the hero to face his or her fears – pass into and through darkness – to succeed. Indeed, filmmaker George Lucas credited Campbell’s work as being the inspiration for his Star Wars trilogy.
If you want to be more like Luke Skywalker, then it’s time to confront the dark side.
The dark side is powerful, but when we face into and embrace it, it loses its power.
In mythology The Hero’s Journey can take decades, but in real life things can go much more quickly. For example in How Grief Gets Trapped In The Body, I shared how it took me years before I was willing to face the dark pain of my father’s early death, but when I did, it only took me a few months to travel through the darkness and return back to the light.
Most of the guided meditations on this site will take you through a mini Hero’s Journey of personal transformation. In twenty to thirty minutes they show you first how to re-connect with a painful wound or pattern, bringing you into the darkness with self-compassion, which supports healing. Then they allow you to get to know the wound on its own terms – to embrace your own dark side. And lastly they bring you though a healing process of transforming the dark into light.
The exact nature of the transformation depends on the specific wound: shame transforms to self-expression, loss and grief transform to appreciation, judgment transforms into compassion, disappointment transforms into love, fears transform into new freedoms, abandonment transforms into abundance, and so on.
At a high level The Hero’s Journey is always the same. It takes courage to start the journey, guidance to be successful, tenancy to make it through the darkness, and, as Jung says, “every decent is followed by an ascent.”
The specific journey you take is less important than the act of starting your Hero’s Journey of personal development, whatever that is for you.
How Do You Know If You’re In Denial?
There is one killer factor that prevents most would-be heroes from manifesting their potential. They do not recognize the need or opportunity for The Hero’s Journey.
Their self-denial is so successful that they do not recognize that there is anything to heal. (This is true for everyone, even the most self-aware, at one time or another. I recently had the experience of discovering deep shame I had so completely buried for my entire life, that I only discovered it a couple of weeks ago.)
Here are some tips to help you unmask your own denial and embark on your Hero’s Journey.
Seeking But Not Finding
If you’re a lifelong seeker but your fundamental experience of life does not change, then this is a sure indicator that there is some negative emotion driving you. When you uncover it, your progress in healing will accelerate exponentially.
Living In The Future
If your attention is constantly on the future, working relentlessly towards how your life is going to be better next week, next month, next year… but you never have time or inclination today to enjoy your life, then this is a sure sign that there’s a wound you’re trying to compensate for. The wound is most likely abandonment.
Always On The Move
If you’re a perpetual motion machine, always doing, doing, doing; if your ideal vacation is doing extreme sports or triathlons; if your relaxation time is always filled with activities… then – you guessed it – you’re in denial about something. All the frenetic activity is to cover up some emotion that would become clear to you if only you sat still long enough to feel it. Take a day to be alone and do nothing. Be aware of how you feel when you’re not moving. You’ll hate it and you’ll want to run away from that emotion – away from The Hero’s Journey. Turn around and face into the opportunity, no matter how gloomy it seems.
If you spend a lot of your time on affirmations, surrounding yourself with positive people, positive environments, positive thoughts… then it’s a cover up. Sure, being positive has its place, but if your life revolves around positivity, then your unconscious intention is to keep a lid on barely-suppressed negative thoughts and feelings. Let yourself be negative for a day. Then work with what comes up.
Smile When You’re Sad
When you’re sad, do you let people see your pain, or do you put on a happy face and act like nothing happened? It’s OK to be sad and for people to see your true feelings. It’s only when we acknowledge those feelings that we can begin The Hero’s Journey.
Justify Your Behaviors
Do you do things that other people think are self-sabotaging, for which you have perfectly rational explanations? Chances are you’ve fallen prey to The Neuroscience Of Bullshit. Stop and listen to your friends. Especially ask them what emotions they see that might be driving your behaviors. You’ll be certain they are wrong – that’s just the nature of our defense mechanisms, but listen to them anyway. It’s usually easier for those who care about us to see us as we really are.
This Article Made You Angry
If this article made you mad, then that’s a sure sign that you’ve been trying to use positivity to cover up your own negative feelings. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news (truly, I am), but if you had nothing to defend, why would you be angry? The sooner you start to deal with your negative feelings, the faster you’ll make progress in your healing journey. Speaking of negative feelings, how about using your anger about this article as the starting point for following the Transform Your Fears guided meditation? I promise you’ll discover something valuable about yourself and have a new sense of freedom.
Don’t Be Wolf Meat
If you’ve been hiding negative emotions from yourself, then in terms of personal growth and development, you’re wolf meat.
Don’t do that.
The Hero’s Journey takes courage. That’s why they’re called heroes. More than anything else, the journey requires making a personal commitment and planting the first step. Empower the hero inside you. When would you like to begin?