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Why Are People So Uncomfortable with Negativity?

Despite the stereotype that men don’t share their feelings, I am a heart-on-sleeve kind of guy. When I am happy, everyone around me knows it—and this remains true when I am stressed, disgruntled, disgusted, angry, sad, or even hungry. To quote Eve Ensler, I am an emotional creature.

While psychologists will often say it’s a good thing to express oneself openly and honestly—it certainly makes therapy more efficient—there are significant social consequences for doing so. Every adult knows this: You can’t tell your boss that he or she is a terrible leader and that you think about quitting every day, even if true, and it would be equally foolish to tell your date that you are exploring four other options simultaneously. I was chastised at a party once for being honest about my feelings regarding relationships (I was unhappily single at the time) and killing the vibe. Certain things are better left unsaid unless your goal is to burn a bridge.

However, to deny that a major part of life is negative and thus attempt to be positive all the time is also counterproductive. In its most extreme form, positivity becomes a tool to increase one’s social status at the expense of one’s self. The Netflix show Black Mirror tackles this head-on in its season-three episode “Nosedive.” I posit that despite the tendency to post positive aspects of one’s life on social media and either downplay or omit the negative, in the real world, a frown is better than a phony smile.

I do not claim this just because a frown is more genuine. Consider a person who is in serious physical or psychological pain. If that person smiles all the time—pretending that everything is OK—how will anyone know that he or she needs help? I know from experience that the person who gets medical attention the quickest at the ER is the person who screams the loudest or complains the longest. A phony smile will not do any good in that context.

Also, consider anyone who has ever made a difference in this world. Were they glass-half-full in their outlook? Unlikely. At least, not obsessively so. I read a study a few years ago claiming that revolutionaries and innovators all see reality in a negative light to some extent. This is what motivates them to fight for change. Malcolm X often seemed angry—and understandably so. If a person can’t see any wrong, then why resist the status quo? Why even bother to get up in the morning at all? I can say as a man that many of us see ourselves as problem-solvers and take pride in fixing things. Some of us solve problems and fix things for a living. But if there are no problems to solve and nothing broken to fix, then what purpose do we serve?

Finally, according to at least one psychotherapist, it’s impossible to feel true bliss when one has never experienced its opposite. We may feel a lot more pain than a plant or an insect, but we also experience a lot more pleasure (and thank God for that). Deep, complex, and, yes, negative emotions are what make us human. Why deny them?

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