One of my favorite pieces of music is Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. You may know this music and the heart wrenching sadness of the violins. Many people consider the Adagio the saddest music ever written. When I need a good cry, to release what I’m holding, this piece will do it for me.
Feelings of sadness, loneliness, anger, inadequacy, guilt, shame, and resentment are some of the difficult emotions that I, like you, am no stranger to. Through the course of my life and work I am keenly aware that there is no way in this world that I can go through life without having these difficult emotions. And I firmly believe that an inability to name and tend to difficult emotions can lead to more suffering. Tending to my negative emotions by acknowledging, naming, sitting with, and expressing them, is part of how I make my way as a human in this world. (Confession: In the past, I also had a tendency to wallow, stewing in, most often, regrets over things said and not said to me and by me, thinking that I could somehow undo the past.)
What about positive emotions? Positive emotions have helped me be more resilient in the face of grief, fear, indignation, humiliation, shame, and regret. As the mother of two college-aged daughters, there are some days in which I barely fathom the challenges they face in our broken world and my inability to protect them from suffering like I thought I could when they were small. I fear the things that have happened and that might happen. I regret things that I didn’t tell them and things I did tell them or show them when they were growing up. As a cancer physician, I have cared for those living with or dying from cancer, battered by the effects of treatments that are sometimes worse than the disease. As a physician citizen, powerless rage at injustice takes my breath away.
Deliberately fostering positive emotions has allowed me to have equanimity so that I can continue to do what I have to do to take care of others and myself.
Just to be clear, growing positive emotions is not the same as having a “positive attitude” or practicing “positive thinking.” I, like many others who do the work I do, have strong objections to the tyranny of positive thinking. When we face a challenge such as illness, including depression and anxiety, or a loss–of a loved one, our health, an important relationship, an identity–thinking our way out of the situation is not possible. In addition, difficult emotions can teach us things, remind us of our common humanity, and keep us humble.
The benefit of positive emotions is not in undoing the negative emotions we have in response to life but rather holding us up as we face the slings and arrows that life throws at us. While I can’t just think or feel my way out of the pain of my life and the pain I witness in others’, I can create a reservoir of positive emotions to keep me buoyant and to be there when the inevitable bruises of life make their way onto my wide-open, full-throttled life.