What happens when you get the thing you want?
We all know the answer, your attention moves, like a roving lighthouse, to find the next thing you want. Rinse and repeat.
When I made a major move in my life in a grand effort to construct my adult identity in the aftermath of a decimating spiritual awakening, I was given an important opportunity to look at the fact that there’s no amount of fixing the outside that makes the inside ok. Turns out it wasn’t New York City that was making me a neurotically driven workaholic. That was an inside job.
Somehow, in the wake of my relocation, I spent the first three months focusing on what still wasn’t quite right in my life despite the glaciers and boulders I had moved (and watched move) to get to a new place. I focused on what cords were still hanging on. Who needed to still move. What needed to fit in place that wasn’t quite there. It was a list I dwelled on like the CEO of an unprofitable company.
Had Enough of Your Own Negativity Yet?
And then, I’d had enough. Enough of my scarcity mentality. My negativity. And, honestly, enough of not being able to feel all that was right, the perfection of all things I’d come to appreciate through my incredibly intricate and unexpected process of dissolution and rebuilding.
From one perspective, problem-solving is masculine energy. Receiving and feeling is feminine energy. When one is dominant, the other is quiet. When you are in your head, you’re not in your heart. There’s a time for each.
I wanted to feel, so I knew I had to rein in my mind. As a part of that effort, I committed to one month of no complaining.
Complaining refers to focusing on perceived problems (what could go wrong, what went wrong, and what is wrong) and what still needed to change in order for me to feel ok. It is a focus on what is lacking, on what’s not to my liking, on what I’m trying to make happen still. It is all of the ways I was experiencing myself as being victimized by people, circumstances, and life. In committing to not complain for one month, I’d committed to not telling my victim stories to anyone.
What came up with this commitment was interesting:
First, I thought that I would become less interesting to others. Truly. I thought, no one wants to hear “everything is abundant and magical” in response to “What’s up?” And I was able to look at how I might have been using complaining as a social currency.
Second, I further realized that the particular social currency I was employing was that of making myself smaller in order to make others feel unthreatened and comfortable. I noted that when I was speaking to someone new I had just met, it wasn’t five minutes before I was weaving in the tragicomedy of a house I’ve had on the market for 5 years without a sale. I was communicating to him, unconsciously, I have problems so don’t be put off by the impression that I am somehow amazing.
Which led me, thirdly, to see that we all do this. We commiserate—we suffer together—because it makes us feel more connected. We do this because we don’t otherwise feel connected. We don’t wake up to 40 sets of eyes every morning in a tribal bath of unconditional love and support. We don’t know who our people are. We are desperate to connect, to feel seen and loved (queue social media!).
Fourthly, we don’t feel worthy. All of us, in our early years, heard on a major or minor occasion that we are inadequate. I believe our entire sense of self, all of the habits, patterns, and programs of our personalities are in response to this primal wound. So we need a lot of help learning how to simply receive. How to allow what is wonderful and fulfilling to actually penetrate us.
I use the 17-second rule: anytime something exciting happens, I close my eyes for 17 seconds and set off emotional fireworks to program my attention around the fact that it actually happened without moving onto the next thing that hasn’t yet happened. And I also try to say “thank you” when someone compliments me, instead of “oh, this? I got it on the sale rack at Rainbow.”
But Why Are We This Negative?
One theory is that we focus on problems because of a neuroplastic phenomenon called negativity bias wherein our brain’s level of activity increases asymmetrically—more with negative information than positive. Some researchers have found that this skewing is apparent before we are even one year old. Other research has found that there is a particular kind of negativity that reinforces the habit of negativity and that it is a particular kind of brooding (versus self-reflective) rumination.
I think that one of the drivers behind negativity bias is our uniquely Western discomfort with discomfort. If you have traveled to India or Africa where the people would seem to have less to be objectively pleased about, you may be shocked to find a surplus of everyday joy, generosity, and gratitude.
These people may experience the fulfillment of meaning and purpose, known as eudaimonic happiness, in their community-based lives versus the positive emotional experience of hedonism or self-gratification. Research has even suggested that, relative to getting what you want, eudaimonic happiness is associated with anti-inflammatory gene expression.
Perhaps our negativity reflects a desire for something that is genuinely absent from our lives—a desire to feel whole.
We so-called first worlders are feeling the pain of what is missing. We feel, even if unconsciously, that community, a connection to the earth, and intergenerational wisdom are undergoing extinction. We have gaping wounds that we are stuffing with secondary satisfactions. It’s like starving and eating Cheetos. It feels good for a minute but doesn’t solve the problem of malnutrition.
So we want more—all the time. We are told that what we get—a house, job, lover, money—will still the whirring ache within. But when we get these things, we find the ache quickly returns. The result is we are ever striving to fix the problem which requires focusing on the problem.
So how do we stop this cycle? How do we become content to simply be? How do we learn to focus on and feel what we have rather than what we lack?
Surprisingly, I believe it has something to do with expanding our comfort zone to include challenging emotions like sadness, grief, and anguish. It has to do with being ok with all that isn’t ok so that it is stripped of its negative power, neutralized into a complex landscape made of many hues of emotional valence. According to one compelling study, we find happiness when we have the capacity to feel what we deem is “right” to feel rather than what is good. It’s as if we know we are meant to feel it all and want to actually have that experience rather than feeling suppressed or contracted when all is fundamentally well, or numb when feeling sad would make the most emotional sense.
Increase Your Negative Capability
This expanded experience of comfort with discomfort with confusion, disorientation, and not knowing, is not a new concept. Called negative capability, the poet John Keats coined this term in 1817, writing “I mean Negative Capability, that is when Man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reason.”
What this artist perceived hundreds of years ago is that true vision requires embracing paradox and uncertainty. I would suggest that felt happiness and fulfillment requires that we stop seeking the magic pill and final quick fix, but instead embrace nuance and meaning. What could be the message behind that fender bender that’s going to set you back $1200? Is there a reason that every apartment rental deal is falling through?
I derive profound solace from the exploration of right timing and purposeful design in this human experience. If we can translate our mess into meaning, then we can better liberate ourselves to actually feel the mess rather than simply bypass or fix it.
This is not the same as being happy about things your mind is telling you are wrong. It’s not whitewashing. It’s allowing the bass tones to coexist in the symphony of treble notes. In this way, we can better embrace seemingly negative emotions as part of a larger process. In fact, a 1300 person study revealed that accepting negative emotions rather than suppressing, fighting, or otherwise papering over them leads to the experience of fewer negative emotions.
In sum, if we make more room for feeling bad, we will not focus on it as much because feeling bad will be less of a problem and less worthy of grabbing our roving lighthouse lantern.
In order to honor the complex and nuanced feelings beneath my complaints and problem-focus, I have taken from my month of complaint fasting a commitment to consciously mine my complaints for the feeling beneath the grievance and to work to connect and express that feeling rather than the gripe itself.
I suspect that when we stop fighting what we are feeling—scared, alone, abandoned, angry—we will spend less time focusing on what’s wrong in our lives that needs fixing. Only through this portal of acceptance will we have the opportunity to finally drop into the vast ok-ness of it all.
This post contains excerpts from my new book, Own Your Self, now available for pre-order.
Kelly Brogan, MD, is a holistic women’s health psychiatrist and author of The New York Times bestselling book “A Mind of Your Own,” the children’s book “A Time for Rain,” and co-editor of the landmark textbook “Integrative Therapies for Depression.” This work is reproduced and distributed with the permission of Kelly Brogan, MD. For more articles, sign up for the newsletter at KellyBroganMD.com