Misdirected negativity

Electrons swirling around someone's head

A year ago, I wrote Analgesia, where I observed that entertainment can become pathological when it's used as a kind of painkiller to distract you from something making you feel uncomfortable or unhappy. I've been thinking recently about a more general problem of misdirected negativity.

It seems like the general intuition is that negative feelings, negative thoughts and so on are bad and unhelpful. I've no doubt that sometimes they are; If you're bombarded with negative thoughts about everyday things that, on reflection, don't indicate any problem, then that's definitely not helping you in any way.

However, it's going too far to say that all negativity is bad. Much like chronic pain is terrible and pathological, so is constant negativity. But pain when you put your hand in a fire tells you to remove your hand, and that's obviously useful. Similarly, it can be useful to feel bad, even to feel absolutely terrible. If those negative feelings stem from a situation you can change, then ignoring them is every bit as silly as leaving your hand in the fire to burn.

So this is the problem with a worldview where any negativity is bad. You get these negative feelings, but instead of letting them motivate a change in your actions, you deal with the feelings themselves to try to avoid feeling bad. I think of this as misdirected negativity, because instead of letting that negativity flow through to your behaviour, you're diverting it to somewhere else.

Entertainment is one way to misdirect negativity, but there are lots of others too. It doesn't feel good to feel bad, so it's understandable that our instinct is to fight against it. However, I think it can make more sense to embrace negativity, to allow yourself to feel sad, bored, frustrated, lonely, or afraid. While you're there, ask: what is this negative feeling for? What is it trying to get me to do?

Maybe the answer is nothing, and it's a pointless negative mood that it makes sense to ignore. On the other hand, maybe it reflects an important change worth making, and the right answer is to pass through that negativity to whatever is on the other side, rather than shrink away from it and end up back where you were before.