April 10, 2011

THE POSITIVE IN THE NEGATIVE, Part 2: Extracting the benefit out of anxiety, depression and disappointment

I had the blues because I had no shoes
 until upon the street,
 I met a man who had no feet. 
Persian Saying

All the contrarians in the world can now rejoice they have found a voice. Dr. Rorem’s theory of the power of the negative thinking is not just alluring, but can be an effective strategy for managing anxiety. As we saw in Part 1 of this article, having positive attitude alone is not sufficient for highly anxious people. There is the ‘defensive pessimism’ a strategy which works where just being positive fails. Even Martin Seligman, the father of the positivity movement acknowledges this.

Martin Seligman
It is also true that genuinely resilient positivity often grows out of a depressive personality, because it started from shaky roots; like Seligman himself, he knows not to go back there. Its strength is tested by experience. It was William James who first said that changing your attitude can change your life, which is still a vital message for angst-ridden people, even though the thought of changing their world view spins them into greater anxiety.

The evidence is still overwhelming that having the grace of hope against all odds is an evolved way to be, ensuring your life will be more tuned-in and successful. According to numerous studies, positive people tend to exceed their performance (www.authentichappiness.com) with positive attitude. But anxious people do much better by using this ‘negative anticipation’ method, in maintaining their paranoia rather than clicking the switch to pronoia or conscious optimism. If you accentuate the positive, that’s what you find in abundance, but fault-finders also find exactly what they seek. Looking on the black side can be addictive. It is the same universe that satisfies both.

From the kernel of painful, traumatic experiences something strong is forged. So is there any point avoiding it or being fearful of the difficult? We feel bad when we don’t get what we want. Oscar Wilde noted that if you don’t get what you want, think of the things you don’t want, that you don’t get. This is a neat compensation trick, requiring some effort of perception. This is what we need to do with disappointment and difficulty - to extract the beneficial juice and somehow alchemically distill the reason why it happened to us.

Soren Kierkegaard
The novel Therapy (1995) by David Lodge is a fine example of how for the character of Tubby - getting fat, losing your hair, getting divorced, becoming impotent, and having a bad knee- can all actually turn out be good for you. Tubby finds that the word ‘dread’ nails his own issue more than ‘anxiety’ which tends to trivialize the feeling. He discovers hidden affinities with Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard.  This ‘dread’ suggests that we often fail to ‘coincide’ with ourselves, missing the best of our current life as we focussed on ‘dread.’  Twenty years ago, I read Kierkegaard and it was as electrifying to me then as it is to Tubby to read the words: ‘an unhappy man is always absent to himself, never present.’  But there was more…  on the one hand he constantly hopes for something he should be remembering. On the other hand he constantly remembers something he should be hoping for. Consequently, what he hopes for lies behind him and what he remembers lies before him.’

This is unfortunately the condition of many; we fail to be at home to ourselves. We fail to be relaxed in our true nature. We are too busy ‘futurising’ and ‘pasturising’ so to speak, playing the ‘when... then’ game: When I get  X, then I’ll feel happy. Oh what a twisted world we inhabit.

Lodge’s Therapy is by turns serious and hilarious. It highlights this paradox: how useful it can be when you suffer agonies and depression to see these experiences as valid, formative and necessary. Shakespeare’s words ring ever true here, ‘the sweet uses of adversity.’ We can in fact reclaim these negative experiences and, like rubbish hawks, recycle discarded stuff found on the waste tip of your life, and creatively put it to good use again.

Jean Rhys
Writer, Jean Rhys, wrote brilliant books, such as Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), but never enjoyed any success from them in her lifetime. She once said that if she could have her life all over again, she would rather have been happy than have been a writer. But, we might ask, can happy people ever be good writers? Is not unhappiness the secret ingredient of good books? It is hard to conceive of a truly happy person wanting to be a writer. The myth would suggest that  happy people are too busy being happy to bother writing.So let us hope that Rhys's wish is granted   in a happier incarnation now, in which she finds libraries, books and typewriters naturally abhorrent. But perhaps there would not be many interesting books left to read if every writer felt this way?

Other writers swear that their unhappiness is their true muse. Take the pain and sickness away from them and they have nothing left, just an abyss lacking clear purpose or identity. They only write when they are unhappy or because of unease about something. Writing out painful experiences is a form of healing medicine for them. Writing is certainly therapy, as is well documented. It channels one other ‘use’ to which adverse experience can be put. The ultimate goal then might be for the writer to stop writing - making writer’s block, contrarily, a symptom of good mental health, not bad.

During a long period of depression back in the late eighties and mid nineties, I was one of those annoying people who only obsessed about the things that went wrong in my life.  Depression is the antithesis of creativity, which requires openness and hope: I had neither. A person is in danger of shutting down totally, which is what I did. It caused me a lot of isolation and heartbreak, not to mention how it must have bothered other people. I used to believe that I was the living king of disappointments, and I wrote about it as a kind of exquisite pain. I had a knack for getting things wrong, for catching life by the knife’s edge and getting hurt. I had breakdowns. I skittered around people never really getting close. I used to fancy, like Kierkegaard, that disappointment was a kind of mistress who courted me, a perverse guardian angel. When I began to use this analogy, it actually made feeling rotten, slightly better for a few minutes, even hours, so it felt good, and I could almost laugh at my clownish antics feeling sorry for myself, my broken relationships, my miserable, unstable mood swings.  I was certain that I was destined to be the buffoon, to whom bad stuff adhered like glue. Astonishingly, in the UK, depression affects 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men, so once I began to understand how it worked inside myself, my goal became how to bring any relief possible to those who suffer.

Woody Allen
Along with learning hypnosis, humour was what helped pull me through. Humour provides the subtle key that could twist pain into a belly laugh. This new idea was the key- suddenly seeing the funny side of what happened allowed the emotional pain to shift, and thus subside. Being a miserable sod was really a totally hilarious farce - a nasty joke the universe played at my expense. So why not laugh it out? Tickling the funny bone of depression shifted my point of view. It was like it was happening to someone else. Woody Allen is King of this line in has twisted logic: “More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other leads to extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

Humour, hypnosis, and writing have all served a reconstructive purpose for me. Hypnosis delves deep into mind states to unravel knotty problems, and irons out the creases of your psyche. This was all before anyone knew about EFT Emotional Freedom Technique - which is another nifty technique. Many issues rooted largely in 'fear' 'dread' and 'anxiety,' respond quickly and well to tapping directly on the energy body, which, like healing writing, triggers both right and left brain to refresh inspiration. You reconnect with the muse.  Simple emotional acupuncture can often provoke multiple viewpoints. We begin to see the other sides of a problem and from that vantage point, it soon ceases to bother you. Other more complex and subtle problems tend to float up for your edification once the big ones are knocked on the head.  But I have always found that recommend writing out problems works incredibly well too. The more complex and horrific the feelings, the more benefit you gain from writing each tangled strand of the turmoil out on paper or on a computer screen.

Make of this what you will, but it is the strategy of unhappy people the world over to forget to feel the fresh air on your face on their way to the Tube station. They are so busy spinning scenarios of what was and what could be, they miss where they are right now - where everything is usually pretty much okay mate. This is the self-created bubble some people live in; yet  they wonder why they suffer. Try to pop this illusion, push them out of their comfort zone and they become incredibly upset, even fighting to keep it. We often feel locked in a complex sense of reality that loves to feel the pain of dis-contentedness. The neurotic state can make pain seem like joy, making some people happy being unhappy perhaps? This too might be an as yet uncharted great survival strategy in the making. Ultimately, it is an incomplete picture of who we are.

From the standpoint of hypnotherapy one size certainly does not fit all. Positive attitude alone does not always solve the problem. The therapist has to be extremely flexible, adapting a variety of  techniques to suit the idiosyncrasies of the client. What’s negative to some is positive to others and vice versa. Anything that ‘works’ for clients,  however odd, or irrational, is usually there for a reason at that point in their lives. Yet, most who come for help are simply not happy with their current mental landscape and need help controlling what they think about that.  What we think determines how we feel.

Control of thoughts is essential yet so difficult for a lot of people. We have unconscious beliefs. People with performance anxiety for example tend to run this ‘constructive pessimism’ strategy, as Rorem suggests, so perhaps it's manageable.  Yet, they can go on imagining terrible things over and over and are locked in that pattern. 

In  the end we all have to decide what we want to feel. The mind controls it all; we decide we feel happy or unhappy, pissed off or frustrated. Bad things happen. This gives us access to is our personal alchemy, our magic of wringing the honey and ‘sweet uses’ out of repeated anxiety, depression and disappointment. We should  not ignore suffering or the patterns that dog us or weaken us, but we do get to decide exactly how we want to cope with it by whatever means works for us.

© Copyright, Kieron Devlin, 2011, all rights reserved


To Read Part 1 of this Article, The Positive in the Negative Click Here 

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