#48 Brief Purposeful Darkness: Forced Positivity Is A Waste of Time

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In my last post I asked you to spend 15 seconds paying attention to the thoughts that roll through your mind. If you do the exercise a little longer you’ll probably notice things bubbling up that are less than calming. Your mental to-do list. Worries about work or kids or life in general. And you might even go all the way to self-doubt, insecurity, victimhood or paranoia.

And the obvious antidote to all this negativity is to replace the crap with positive thoughts. Force feed your brain a conscious steady stream of positivity. Even when things suck, fake it until you make it.

Or maybe not.

TRY THIS

Here’s another thought experiment. Think about something that’s currently bothering you. Get it in your mind and marinate in its badness.

A current one for me is figuring out what to do with our family’s healthcare. The best plan for us would require a change of family doctors. That sucks, but in all other ways it’s a better plan. So I bounce back and forth and I’ll put off the decision until it becomes a last minute crisis.

Now that you’ve spent some time stressing over your own chosen issue, remove it from your mind. Don’t think about it again for the rest of the day. Crowd out the negativity with all the plusses in your life.

I bet you can’t do it. 

I bet your negativity or self doubt or paranoia or whatever haunts you will weasel its way back into your brain. Repeatedly. And the harder you try to push it away, the more it’ll pop up.

I catch myself thinking about health insurance fifteen times a day. Always simmering in the background. Cluttering. Stopping me from doing my best work.

A psychology journalist named Oliver Burkeman has a lot to say on this topic. Here’s a quote from his book “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”.

“The startling conclusion at which they [many psychologists and philosophers] had all arrived, in different ways, was this: that the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness – that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.”

Point being that trying to force ourselves into a state of happiness won't work. We end up sitting around pissed off because we’re failing to suddenly get happy. Our feeble efforts are no match for our automatic systems. What we called the bull or the elephant in the last post, is driving. And it has a tendency toward the negative.

So everyone agrees that loitering in negative thoughts is a bad idea. And now we’ve learned that forcing ourselves to be positive won’t work either. 

What else is there?

BRIEF PURPOSEFUL DARKNESS

Tonight, just before you say goodnight to a loved one, try this HORRIBLE experiment. Spend just a couple seconds realizing that they could die in their sleep.

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Feel the terror/sadness for an instant before you lean in. Then take note of what follows. 

Isn’t it a more meaningful embrace? Don’t you linger just a half second longer? Aren’t you a little more present, emotional, appreciative, accepting? 

Now, I realize this could be a disaster for someone who is prone to extreme negativity. Someone that can’t dip in and out of these kinds of thoughts and realize how unlikely they are. But that’s not me. I tend to be more logical than emotional and I’ve been kind of surprised by how well this brief dwelling on the worse case scenario works. How it helps me more appreciate the important people in my life.

And it can be used in all sorts of less haunting ways. 

For example, I’m always self-conscious before I publish a post. Worrying each time that the writing isn’t my best work.

Then I take ten seconds to practice brief purposeful darkness. To accept that the post might be a pile of crap riddled with errors and omissions. That I’ll be embarrassed by it. That some readers will unsubscribe. 

I very briefly go to this dark place, and then I rebound by realizing that all of these consequences are survivable. That I’ll live on even if my post is ridiculed or ignored. That my computer won’t blow up. That I won’t be burned at the stake for expressing my imperfect views.

Then I laugh at myself for being such a wimp, hit publish, and move on. A post is born.

You might consider this a trivial example. Any moron can hit go on a blog post that can be edited or deleted after it’s published. Maybe, but it took this moron a few years to hit that button for the first time.

So don’t be fake positive AND don’t loiter in negativity.

Instead, shine a bright temporary light on your stressor. Call it out. Stare at it. Walk the chain of the absolute worse case scenario. 

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And then, once you’ve given the devil his due, once you’ve realized that you will survive, THEN grant yourself permission to move on. 

I realize this sounds a little dark, but it works for me. It helps me quiet my Bull and get back to being productive.

And I'm not the only one that likes this stuff. There just so happens to be a branch of philosophy called Stoicism that also embraces it.

WHAT IS STOICISM?

Stoicism dates back to 300ish BC. But it’s best known practitioners - Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius - are from the period 0-175 AD.  

It’s old stuff, but for some reason it seems to be making a comeback. I notice it mentioned a couple times a month on various blogs and podcasts.

To explain what Stoicism is I'm going to ignore scholarly definitions and instead turn to the Urban Dictionary

“Someone who does not give a shit about the stupid things in this world that most people care so much about. Stoics do have emotions, but only for the things in this world that really matter. They are the most real people alive.”

A strong opinion, and it echoes a prayer that many of you are familiar with.

God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Long before this Serenity Prayer came a similar writing from Stoic guru Epictetus. He was a freed slave turned philosopher and he said...

"Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.
Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.”

This brand of thinking is a key tenet behind Stoicism. The idea that we’re better off spending way less time fretting over garbage that is out of our control. 

Using the symbolism of my last post, this is all about the Rider focusing the Bull. Minimizing the automatic, often unhelpful, junk that rolls through our minds.

Here’s another Stoic quote that’s closely related. This time from Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” 

If this sounds familiar, a guy named Shakespeare ripped him off when he put these words in Hamlet’s mouth. 

“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

A Stoic can only be a victim if they chose to see themselves as such. If they give that power to their oppressor. It leads to the realization that there are very few real victims in the world. A topic I've discussed before in post #28 Purge Wrong Stories.

For us, living in the first world, and far from the bottom rungs of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, it's hard to be a legit victim. Unless you go to extreme cases like child abuse, etc. which most of us aren’t dealing with. 

We’re getting in petty arguments over who screwed up our biggest customer’s order. How to divvy up our budget for the year. Who left the mess in the break room. Stuff that is far from life and death. But we find a way, in our imperfect minds, to amp it up and make it such.

Something a Stoic would avoid because they've better trained their beast. They're not jumping to negative conclusions, pointing fingers, or hiding behind blame. 

They're busy minding themselves and quietly becoming a force for good in the world. Petting their Bull all the while.

THE MAP

(This site is all about building a Map that will help me do work and life better. So at the end of each post I check in to see if any changes / insights come to mind.)

I don’t know enough about the depths of Stoicism to fully jump on the bandwagon, but I do love aspects of it. Focusing on the things in my control. Purposefully embracing the negative path and realizing that it won’t kill me. Reinforcing that Keith-The-Victim is a losing proposition.

And there’s other good stuff that I’ll talk about some other time.

For now, I’ll just say that I've, at times, struggled to get in the right mindset to draw my maps. My brain can be so full of excuses and defense mechanisms that getting to the root is a challenge. And I've found that these Stoic ideas have helped me quiet down enough to figure out what matters to me. What excites me. What directions I'd like to grow.

They've given my Rider a voice to use with my Bull.

And along these lines, there’s one last step I want to take on this philosophical path to a better mindset. I want to share something amazing with you that proves beyond any doubt that I am an ignorant hypocrite. 

But that’ll have to wait until next time.

***Note: This site works best when you read the posts in order. So please head to the ARCHIVE to get started.