When Writers Should Ignore “Be Positive” Advice

Filed in When Writing Is Hard by on January 23, 2017 • views: 2028

Be PositiveA friend of mind got a rejection the other day.

She’d worked really hard on the story, putting it through numerous edits. The journal was one she’d read and admired for years. It was a big blow.

I tried to console her, but she wouldn’t really allow it. “Nah, I’m fine,” she said overly cheerfully. “We all know this happens, right? I’ll just try another publication.”

I agreed that would probably be the best approach, but told her again how sorry I was.

“Ah thanks, but I’ll be fine. Onward and upward!”

She was putting on the brave face. We writers know the deal. But I couldn’t help but feel like my friend was rushing it a bit. I knew she was really disappointed, but instead of allowing herself to share that pain with me, she was shutting it off and blocking it out. For a moment I wondered why, but then I remembered.

In today’s world, we’re supposed to “be positive.” Anything less is often seen as unacceptable.

PositivityThe Problem with Excess Positivity

We live in a culture that values positivity.

Be positive. Think positive. Act positive.

There’s a good reason for that. Positive thinking, or optimism, has been linked in a number of studies to better psychological health, lower risk of depression, decreased risk of heart disease and other health problems, a stronger immune system, improved problem-solving, and increased achievement in life.

With all these potential benefits, it’s no wonder we’re being encouraged to replace negative thoughts with positive ones as often as we can.

It’s a good goal to pursue.

There is a dark side to all this positivity, however.

Sometimes, it can go too far—so far that it dulls our creativity and robs our writing of its power.

DisappointedTrying to “Be Positive” Can Backfire

It happens when we start to feel guilty about our negative emotions.

We react to a bad review, for instance, and instantly think we “shouldn’t” feel this way. We immediately try to replace that negative thought with a positive one, like we’ve been taught.

“It’s okay. It’s only one review. It’s subjective, just one person’s opinion. No reason to get all upset about it.”

This may be a good strategy in some cases—when you read that bad review while in a business meeting, for example—but if we don’t allow ourselves to eventually feel the negative emotion, we’re doing something that’s very detrimental for our health and creativity:

repressing emotions.

A.k.a. squashing it down. Burying it before we have a chance to deal with it. Sweeping it under the rug and replacing it with pretend positive energy.

We all have to hide our negative emotions now and then, but in today’s world, we’re doing it too often. We’re in a culture of positivity, where expressing any sort of negative feeling or response can be considered a character flaw.

So we do our best to hide or forget about any painful or negative emotions we may feel.

Unfortunately, the regular repressing of emotions will come back to bite us, physically and creatively. In fact, it can be downright dangerous to a writing career.

If it leads to emotional numbness, for instance—which it can over time—it can rob us of the emotions we need to fuel our creative work.

So how can we balance the benefits of positive thinking with actually feeling and even (gasp) expressing our negative emotions?

That is the question—and the challenge, particularly for writers, who often feel both types of emotions very deeply.

negative emotions frighteningNegative Emotions Can be Frightening To Writers

Writing is a tough business, and we know that “thinking positive” is the best way to weather the rough spots.

We also know that our risk for depression and anxiety can be higher than for those in the general population. That can make us even more concerned about any negative emotions we may feel, because we know the power they can have. We may fear that if we indulge them too much, we could fall into a downward spiral that would lead to depression and despair.

The temptation then, might be to squash our negative feelings because we’re afraid of what they may do to us.

We may also worry about showing our negative side to others, particularly those closest to us, because we know our emotional ups and downs can be difficult for others to weather. (“Those writers are so sensitive!”)

If we ignore or squelch our negative feelings, however, we’re repressing our emotions, and according to studies, that’s extremely dangerous.

Cool CustomerBeing a Cool Customer Can Make You Furious, Aggressive, and Dead

What if you’re angry? Angry at having worked so long and hard only to have your novel wither away on the market? Suppress that anger and you could be asking for even more anger—perhaps, even fury.

That’s what scientists found in 2002. Researchers from the University of Aberdeen had men and women watch video clips. They encouraged one group to express any angry feelings that came up, a second group to suppress their anger, and a third group to substitute a happy memory for any angry feeling.

Results showed that women, in particular, who suppressed their anger, actually felt angrier as a result, even outraged and extremely upset. Men were more likely to feel excess anger if they were asked to substitute a happy memory for their real feelings.

Bottled up emotions can also make people more aggressive. A 2011 study had some people suppress their emotions and show no reaction to disgusting scenes in the 1983 film “The Meaning of Life” and the 1996 film “Trainspotting.”

Results showed that those who suppressed their emotions were more aggressive afterwards. Researchers concluded that bottling up negative emotions, such as biting your tongue around a difficult boss at work, could result in later aggression, such as yelling at one’s children.

“Our research suggests people may become more aggressive after they have to control themselves,” said co-author Dr. Arthur Markman, suggesting that somehow, somewhere, those emotions are going to come out.

If not in your behavior, in your body.

In a 2013 study of over 700 people, those who rated high on the scale of emotional suppression were 47 percent more likely to die of heart disease and 70 percent more likely to die of cancer.

passion for writingRepressed Emotions Can Kill Your Passion for Writing

Writers learn to develop a “thick skin.” We have to be able to deal with rejections, poor sales, bad reviews, sagging careers, and more throughout our lifetimes. We have to become just a little tough to manage it all, or we risk falling into an emotional pile of goo every other day.

If we don’t have a way of expressing our negative emotions though—through writing, talking with someone, exercising, whatever—we can slowly kill our creative talent. Creativity thrives on emotions, both the good and the bad. If we’re constantly burying one side of the coin, it won’t be long before the other side loses its shine, too, and we’re left with a very dull penny.

Researchers found something interesting in a recent study—intense emotions are key to creative output. This isn’t a surprise to most of us. We know when we feel the emotions our characters are experiencing, our writing is more powerful.

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” as Robert Frost said.

In the study, researchers found that people who reported experiencing extreme or intense emotions on a regular basis scored higher on measures of creative capacity than those who simply reported experiencing positive or negative emotions.

“There’s something about living life with passion and intensity,” says science director and author Scott Barry Kaufman, “including the full depth of human experience, that is conducive to creativity.”

He goes on to say that in his own research, he found that the “extent to which people are open to the full breadth and depth of their emotions” served as a better predictor of their artistic creativity than IQ or intelligence.

Full breadth and depth of emotions. That means experiencing all of it, not just the good stuff. We have to be willing to let the hard stuff hit us, and go through it, rather than trying to avoid it, if we want to continue to have access to all of our creative powers.

“Emotional suppression renders us less capable and responsible,” writes Michael Sky, author of The Power of Emotion: Using Your Emotional Energy to Transform Your Life. “We need our emotions. They provide us with the vital force to think creatively and act decisively. The more successfully that we suppress our emotions, the less successfully we will do anything else.”

Negative EmotionsNegative Emotions Can Be Good for You

Would you be surprised to learn that when handled well, negative emotions can actually be good for you?

Writer and psychotherapist Tori Rodriguez recalls an experience where a client, in the middle of relating a difficult experience, apologized for being “so negative.”

“In recent years I have noticed an increase in the number of people who also feel guilty or ashamed about what they perceive to be negativity,” he writes. “Such reactions undoubtedly stem from our culture’s overriding bias toward positive thinking. Although positive emotions are worth cultivating, problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time.”

He goes on to say that accepting anger, sadness, and other negative emotions is key to mental health. Understanding both sides of the emotional spectrum helps us to gain insight into our lives, and to draw more meaning from them.

Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, writes:

“Our constant efforts to eliminate the negative…is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.” By putting too much focus on ignoring these emotions, he suggests, we could only be encouraging more.

The same could be said for our writing careers. Pretending like everything is great all the time may actually be more difficult and detrimental to our future success than accepting the down times, and allowing ourselves to express the feelings that go with them.

“As we clog and diminish the flow of emotional energy,” Sky says, “we block and interfere with the fundamental design and function of the human organism….Our bodies and minds struggle through energy-starved lives, while suppressing great wells of life force within.”

questionAre You Suppressing Your Emotions?

How can you tell if you may be suppressing your negative emotions? Watch for the following signs:

  • You have ways of distracting yourself. When you get a rejection, for instance, you distract yourself rather than allowing yourself to feel the disappointment.
  • You don’t want to talk about it. When a writing friend asks you about what happened, you brush it off and avoid it.
  • You use other things to numb the pain. It could be alcohol, food, activities, social media—the options are endless. You do something to stop feeling the pain you feel, and that something may not be good for you.
  • You lash out in other ways. You become irritable around your family and friends, or you take it out on yourself, deciding you’re no good and you’re going to quit writing.
  • You suffer from aches and pains. If you get a headache soon after you received that rejection, chances are you’re suppressing. Other muscle and joint aches or digestive issues can be similar signs of squashing your emotions.
  • You speak words you don’t feel. “It’s okay,” you say. “I didn’t really care whether they published the story or not.” Or, “The good thing is that I can try again with another publication.” These may be good, positive thoughts, but if you’re saying them only because you think you “should,” you’re likely suppressing your real feelings.
  • You compensate by being overly positive. Sometimes a disappointment can hit us particularly hard. If you feel like you can’t really express your true feelings, you may overcompensate by being extra positive. You’re the life of the party, the one getting all your friends laughing, while you’re crying inside.

7 Ways to Positively Deal with Negative Emotions

A lot of us hide our negative emotions because we don’t really know what to do with them. We can’t wail and whine every time we feel badly. So what can we do? What’s the best way to deal with the tough emotions you’re bound to experience as a writer or creative artist?

The answer is to deal with them head-on. It’s called “emotional vitality.” Keep your emotions and your passion for writing alive by experiencing both the good and the bad. Accept your sensitive self, and adopt some coping techniques.

Allowing yourself to feel without admonishments to “be positive” will help you to be a happier, healthier, more creative writer. Below are seven ways to do just that.

lotus-accept1. Accept the feeling.

This is the most positive step you can take, and one many therapists suggest.

Instead of backing away from it, squashing it, fighting it, or feeling guilty, just sit with the feeling for a moment and accept it. Let the pain erupt in your body as it will.

That submission you pinned all your hopes on has failed. You’re back to square one. You’re hugely disappointed. That’s okay. It’s natural to feel that way. Tell yourself it’s perfectly normal to feel what you’re feeling. Don’t try to stop it.

Says meditation teacher, healer, and writer Ryan Brown: “Try for just a second to experiment with the possibility of the emotion never leaving you, and being totally okay with it, without needing to change anything. Notice how this attitude feels, compared to that of resistance. It can almost feel peaceful, even in the midst of a very heavy emotion.”

As you sit in acceptance, notice as the emotion loses its power. Brown adds: “Since there is no longer a resistance to feeling the emotion, there is no longer anything keeping it from leaving; it is finally free to go…..Fortunately, there is a limit to the energy of the emotion being let out. If we are patient enough and continue to surrender to the process, eventually the pressure of the emotion runs itself out completely, as if a fire has burned it out of us.”

breathe2. Breathe.

You know how it feels when you stub your toe? You hop around for a bit, and then you’re likely to breathe fast and noisily through your nose and mouth until the pain passes.

Deep breathing can help you deal with emotional pain, too. Really, the two types of pain aren’t that different. Focus on your breath while the pain flares up until it subsides a bit.

3. It’s just a feeling.

Remind yourself that this is just a negative emotion, and that it will pass. You don’t have to squash it. If you accept it, breathe, and wait, it will move on of its own accord eventually. You don’t have to control it.

Friends4. Talk to someone you trust.

This could be a writing friend, a family member, or a counselor. Getting it off your chest can be a big help.

Just be sure you’re talking with someone who understands and will accept how you feel. You need someone who’s really good at listening, and won’t jump to conclusions or push you to feel better before you’re ready.

5. Express the emotion.

Talking to people is one way of expressing yourself, but there are many others. If you don’t have anyone available at the moment, try other ways.

Write a nasty letter to the editor that rejected you—just don’t send it. Journal about your feelings. Print out the rejection letter and rip it up. Print out the publisher’s logo and throw darts at it. Go for a walk. Put on your favorite angry music and blast it good and loud.

Find some constructive and active ways to get rid of that tension inside you.

pamper yourself6. Step up the self-care.

Realize and acknowledge that you’ve just been injured. If you cut yourself, for example, you’d have no problem cleaning and dressing the wound, and then resting for a bit.

Consider your emotional wounds in the same way. They hurt, and you need to care for yourself. Do something that will soothe you. A hot bath, a nice meal, an afternoon at the movies, or an evening on the couch in your favorite sweats. Give yourself a chance to heal.

7. Support yourself.

After the initial pain has worn off, treat yourself as you would a good friend—with supportive statements. Some examples:

  • I’m going to be okay. I won’t feel this way forever.
  • All writers go through this. It’s just part of the job.
  • I’m dedicated to my work, and I’m getting better all the time.
  • Everyone experiences setbacks and I’m no exception. I’m strong and I can weather this one.

Once you’ve dealt with the initial pain, realize that there may be some residual feelings. When these come up, try to identify them. “I’m feeling like I’m a lousy writer because I got another rejection.” Dig a little deeper. “I’m afraid I’ll never succeed. I’m afraid I’m doing all this for nothing.”

When you notice these feelings, your first reaction will be to change them, somehow. Don’t. Just identify them and let them be. Relax. Surrender. Allow the feelings to pass through you.

A little later—the next day, maybe—take some positive action. Write 100 words on a new story. If that’s too much, try 50. Write a poem. Write a letter to yourself. Take some action to get yourself back into the “fun” of writing. Remind yourself why you started writing in the first place—because you enjoy it.

After a few days of small, positive actions, you’ll likely find yourself feeling better.

Bottom line: don’t rush it. In today’s world, we think we can take five minutes to deal with negative emotions and then check them off our lists, but it doesn’t work that way. Give yourself the time to feel the emotion, express it, heal from it, and finally, take action to feel better.

Then go use that experience in your story. (grin)

How do you deal with your negative emotions?

Hans Villarica, “How the Power of Positive Thinking Won Scientific Credibility,” The Atlantic, April 23, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/04/how-the-power-of-positive-thinking-won-scientific-credibility/256223/.

“For a Better Workday, Smile Like You Mean It,” MSU Today, February 22, 2011, http://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2011/for-a-better-workday-smile-like-you-mean-it/.

Benjamin P. Chapman, et al., “Emotion suppression and mortality risk over a 12-year follow up,” Journal of Psychosomatic Research, October 2013; 75(4):381-385, http://www.jpsychores.com/article/S0022-3999%2813%2900303-6/abstract.

Sarah Graham, “Study Shows that, for Women, Suppressing Emotions Increases Anger,” Scientific American, January 15, 2002, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/study-shows-that-for-wome/.

Rick Nauert, “Suppressed Emotions Can Lead to Aggression,” Psych Central, March 24, 2011, http://psychcentral.com/news/2011/03/24/suppressed-emotions-can-lead-to-aggression/24643.html.

Daniel Goleman, “Health; New Studies Report Health Dangers of Repressing Emotional Turmoil,” New York Times, March 3, 1988, http://www.nytimes.com/1988/03/03/us/health-new-studies-report-health-dangers-of-repressing-emotional-turmoil.html.

Tori Rodriguez, “Negative Emotions are Key to Well Being,” Scientific American, May 1, 2013, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/negative-emotions-key-well-being/.

Frankie Mullin, “Happiness: should you fake it ‘til you make it?” MSN, September 22, 2014, http://www.msn.com/en-gb/health/mindandbody/happiness-should-you-fake-it-til-you-make-it/ar-AA2CK88.

Michael W. Ceci and V. K. Kumar, “A Correlational Study of Creativity, Happiness, Motivation, and Stress from Creative Pursuits,” Journal of Happiness Studies, April 2016; 17(2):609-626, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10902-015-9615-y.

Scott Barry Kaufman, “The Emotions that Make Us More Creative,” Harvard Business Review, August 12, 2015, https://hbr.org/2015/08/the-emotions-that-make-us-more-creative.

Michael Sky, “The Costs of Suppression,” Healing Arts Center, http://orcashealingarts.org/the-costs-of-suppression/.

Ryan Brown, “How to Free Yourself from Repressed Emotions,” TrueTheory.com, June 10, 2014, http://truththeory.com/2014/06/10/how-to-free-yourself-from-repressed-emotions/.

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Comments (12)

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  1. Great post! The excessive positivity of self-help has done some damage, to be sure. While wallowing in grief forever isn’t good for anyone, it’s sometimes healthy to wallow for a bit. Get good and messy with the frustration and pain so you can wash it all off.

  2. Angela Noel says:

    Your post reminds me of a curious event over the holidays. It’s a long family tale, so I won’t bore anyone with it, but suffice it to say I did the whole, “I shouldn’t blame so-and-so. I should be grateful, not disappointed.” But then a day later, I’m super cheesed-off at my significant other out of proportion to the offense and I realize my anger and hurt from the day before was packed away and festering. Only by admitting the impact and saying the words out loud did I let it go free. I didn’t even need to confront the original “offender” it was just about not denying the feeling in the first place. I love authentically finding the positive side, and I often do. But when the hurt is there, nothing but honoring it as real and true will help it disappear. Thanks for the post!

  3. Kara Post-Kennedy says:

    I am a big fan of expressing my emotions, negative, positive and in between. Yes, when I express negative emotions, I sometimes do feel guilty about it, but ultimately it makes me feel better to get it “up and out”. Not expressing our pain is like leaving it on the stove on simmer; that pot is going to boil over eventually. As long as our baseline of “I’m okay” remains intact, emotional release is healthy, necessary and normal.

  4. David B says:

    Well put, Colleen. I’ve explored similar topics myself.

    I have found it a good habit to favour the positive when there’s a choice. It’s not healthy to dwell too much on past disappointments. But when we have challenging or disappointing experiences, we need to give the related feelings time to be experienced and digested. Otherwise, they rot. (laughs) Trying to lay a fake smile on may be polite but it’s not healthy for our emotions.

    It’s also good to recognize that any change, even an acceptance letter, can trigger a mix of emotions. Grief, for example, is defined as “the total response of the organism to the process of change.” In other words, even positive things can trigger a need to adapt and change and thus grieve, as we let go the old to make way for the new.

    As a guy, I needed to learn to recognize I had feelings and that there where healthy ways to express them that where often not exemplified in many of those around me. Then to recognize there was a backlog of repression that I could begin to let out of the closet, now into healthy channels. That took a bit of time but has made a big difference in quality of life – and the relationship with my muse. 🙂

    • Colleen says:

      Wow, some great insights David. Love the “otherwise they rot” comment. Great way to look at it. Your thoughts on change also got me thinking, as that’s definitely happened to me but I hadn’t heard of the “grieving” process applied to any change, positive or negative. Aha moment! :O)

  5. This is absolutely brilliant, Colleen! And true down to the bones. Ahhh . . . the thing we are tasked with most as writers is to bring emotions to the page. And by stuffing our own, we write in shades of beige.
    Ya gotta feel the negative emotions. Experience them. Let them out. Your tips are wonderful!

  6. Carol Roan says:

    One of the problems is labeling some emotions as negative. Our species wouldn’t have survived if our ancestors hadn’t learned what and who to fear. Millions of women wouldn’t have marched on Saturday if they weren’t angry. If we weren’t equipped with the ability to feel sadness, how would we ever know joy?