“Emotional ambiguity can be difficult in the moment, but embracing it over time reaps greater rewards than a blanket “think positive” approach. Negative experiences are inevitable, and a coping strategy that accommodates nuance can mitigate the psychological damage of sadness and help people find meaning and value in life – even at the worst times.”
Friedman, L.F. (2012). The Perks of Feeling So-So. Psychology Today, October 2012, p.44.
I read this in an article discussing the psychological benefits of experiencing mixed emotions and it validated the perspective that I attempt to help my clients gain. I think of a teenage girl with whom I worked who was either happy or sad, no middle ground. It was a symptom of her larger pattern of black-white thinking. And it led to significant difficulties as she was not able to positively cope with challenging situations, sinking into depression.
It’s a balancing act. When facing difficulties, it is beneficial to think positively. We’ve all heard the story of The Little Engine That Could. But thinking positively does not mean shutting our ears and closing our eyes to negative emotions. I often have clients who list “ignore it” as a coping strategy, particularly in terms of bullying. Yet when I validate this response and ask how they coped with their feelings, I am met with a blank stare. Ignoring is a behavioral strategy but it does not address the emotions. And we often forget about the emotional component. In order to cope, we need to “sit with,” as we mental health professionals call it, negative emotions, experience them, process them and focus on positives all at the same time. A challenge, yes. Doable, yes.
It’s the gray area of emotions, those mixed emotions, that is most important to emotional health. And if you hate that gray area, maybe all you need to do is reframe. My client began to call it the pink area and it became our inside joke. Yet it also helped her lower her defenses towards the gray area and experience it instead. And by experiencing that pink area, she has grown by leaps and bounds.