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Don’t (just) accentuate the positive!

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By Daniel Kingsley


Positive Smaller

You got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mr. In-between…

Johnny Mercer

 

I love Spotify.  Every week a personalised playlist appears on my phone called “Release Radar”, giving me a selection of new tracks that it thinks might appeal to my musical tastes.  A couple of weeks ago it presented me with a new release of an old song.  And it was absolutely my sort of thing – it was the great Aretha Franklin singing the classic 1944 song Accentuate the Positive.  Although I love loads of cutting-edge music being released right now, there’s a big space in my heart for wonderful songs no matter how long ago they were recorded.

And listening to the song my first response was joy.  There’s a terrific catchy melody.  In this version there’s Aretha Franklin’s fantastic vocal.  And the lyrics are in many ways positive and uplifting.  If you can’t picture the recording, have a listen to the song on YouTube here now:

But then I started thinking about the lyric and how it is symptomatic of an attitude that is still prevalent in many parts of society today, and how I think it significantly negatively impacts our self-confidence as speakers and leaders, and ultimately our mental health.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the song, and I’m still very happy to listen to it – it’s the 1940s attitude to emotions that I’m calling into question, because I still see it all around us.  And if it’s not properly understood, it’s going to come back to bite us.

Here’s that lyric again:

You got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mr. In-between…

The essence of the lyric is that we should play up positive emotions, eliminate negative emotions and discard the emotional area in the middle.

In my experience as a human being and a coach, we in fact need to include all sorts of feelings in order to have a healthy inner life and deep self-confidence.

And yet when I see what was taught to my little boy at nursery, what is being taught to my little boy at primary school and what I see around me in much (but not all) of the media, my heart sinks.  The message is:  it isn’t OK to be sad, it isn’t OK to be scared, it’s not OK to be angry.  (Actually, of the 3 emotions anger is the most socially acceptable, but it’s still not properly understood).   Yet at the very least, the prevalent message is that if you’re feeling sad or scared this is something that needs to be ignored, changed or fixed.

 

All emotions are necessary

There are seven basic emotions:  Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, Surprise, Contempt and Disgust.

It’s interesting to notice that of these seven emotions, five are uncomfortable feelings – often called “negative”.  Surprise can go either way.  Leaving just one “positive” or universally comfortable emotion, joy.  Why has evolution chosen to keep so many difficult feelings?

The reason is simple.  Emotions are messengers.  They are (primarily) there to tell us useful things about what our response is to what’s happening in the world.  If we don’t listen to these messengers and try to ignore them, we fail to get the necessary message and bad stuff happens (or continues to happen).

The main issues with suppressing or bottling up emotions is that (a) we don’t get the message and (b) they leak out sideways.  (If you want to learn more about this do check out Susan David’s wonderful book Emotional Agility).

A clear example is anger.  Feeling anger is a sign that something that is happening out there in the world is not OK with you.  It has crossed one of your boundaries.  Another way of putting this is that there is a need in you that isn’t getting met.

Let’s imagine that someone in the finance team at work promised that they’d give you numbers that you needed to file a report by 5pm yesterday, because you needed to file the report with the client by 5pm today, and they missed that deadline.  Let’s also imagine that this person regularly misses these sorts of deadlines and it often impacts you.

The top level emotion you would be feeling would be anger.  This person has made a promise to you that they have not kept.    Your first unmet needs here would be for reliability and trust.  Underneath that you might well be feeling concern (a mild version of  fear).  The client may well criticise you for not delivering the report at the time you promised you would deliver it.  This may impact on how well you are perceived to be doing your job and therefore your job security.  Therefore it will be impacting your need for safety.  (A very core human need).

If you simply bottle up this emotion, two things are likely to happen.  First, this person is going to continue doing what they are doing and it’s going to continue impacting you in your work.  Second, that emotion is highly likely to leak out sideways – either at work or at home.  How often do we end up snapping at our friends and family because of things happening in our working lives?

 

What’s the alternative?  Become a conductor!

The alternative is to become a conductor of emotions.  Most people haven’t heard of this, so let me explain.

There are 3 basic things you can do with an emotion:  express it, repress it or conduct it.  To express it is to immediately blurt it out and dump it all over the person who “caused it”.  To repress it is to bottle it up (no explanation needed here).  To conduct it is to do something different; to actually feel it.

Feeling an emotion is not the same as noticing it.  Usually when we say “I feel angry” we have noticed that we are feeling the emotion and we can usually say who is to blame!

To actually feel an emotion we need to go inside to our bodies and ask:

  • Where can I feel the emotion? – all emotions will have a location in the body
  • What does it feel like? Is it hot, cold, tight, loose, tingly, twisty?
  • You can notice other characteristics – the size of the area that feels that way. You can even give it an imaginary colour if it has one.

This process is part of what psychologists call un-blending or dis-identification.  We go from saying “I feel angry” to saying “a part of me feels angry”.

Screenshot 2022 12 20 At 10.35.30
Going from “I feel angry” to “A part of me feels angry”

By noticing the characteristics of this part we gain more internal space.  That part of us is no longer all of us and it’s no longer as likely to be taking us over and running the show.  We can then also find out what message (if any) that part is trying to send to us.

I’ve spoken about this process before in the context of fear – see this article that I wrote earlier this year.

To conduct an emotion is simply to feel the physicality of that emotion in the body without trying to change it.  If you pay good attention you’ll probably notice that it doesn’t remain static, the sensations subtly change, ebb and flow.  Often simply conducting the emotion without doing anything more makes a huge difference in its own right.

 

Now…Listen

Now we are in a position to listen to that emotion or feeling.  What message is this part trying to send us?  Why is it angry (or scared, sad, disgusted etc…)?  It’s really helpful to get to the bottom of what’s going on here.

e.g. “I’m angry because John hasn’t delivered the numbers in time, and he’s always letting me down”.

That’s fine, but we now need to delve deeper.

Find out more – why does that matter to you?  How does that impact you?  What needs are at stake here and unmet?

“…and that means I’m likely to get in trouble with the client and it could reflect badly on me, and ultimately affect my changes of getting a promotion”.

“…So ultimately that’s impacting my need for safety and my need for recognition (to be seen to be doing a good job).”

“…and it’s really stressful when things get delivered late, which is impacting my need for relaxation, satisfaction and enjoyment at work, plus my need to feel trust in those around me”.

 

Have some self-compassion

Now we’ve started to get the message it’s important to calm ourselves down.  The quickest way of calming yourself down when you are feeling a strong emotion is to have some self-compassion.  Having self-compassion means responding to the part of you that’s having that emotion, in the way that a kind friend would respond to you, if you told them the whole story, including all the stuff about your unmet needs in the situation.

I’m sure it’s obvious to you that you’d probably relax quite a bit if you had a friend on hand who could do this.  But the good news is that we can do this for ourselves, and it will have a very similar effect.

How do we do this?  Through empathy and validation.

To empathise is simply to reflect back to that part of you that you can hear it:

“I can really hear how annoyed and frustrated you are with John’s behaviour.  And how stressful it is, plus how you are concerned it will ultimately impact your prospects at work…”

To validate is to tell that part of you that it’s feelings make sense to you.

“…And it I really get that you’d feel angry when John keeps breaking his promises about the numbers being delivered on time, and that you’d feel concerned about the impacts on you if you deliver your report late.  And it’s horrible to feel all that extra stress as a result of the behaviour of your colleague.  Pretty-much anyone in your situation would be likely to feel the same.”

 

Reassure and Respond

Now we are no longer in red-alert mode and have a good dose of amber in our systems (using a traffic light model), we can offer reassurance to that part of us having the difficult feeling.

If the feeling is an irrational fear, we can find an adult part of us that can tell the worried child-like part of us that it really doesn’t have anything to worry about, and give it the reasons why.  (Notice that this is different from telling it that it’s silly to be worried about it.  In fact, we’ve just told it the opposite).

If it’s a rational fear, the adult part of us can help to formulate a plan to make things as safe as possible, and reassure that scared part of us that we’re going to do all we can to keep ourselves safe.

If the feeling is anger, the adult part of us can make a grown-up decision about whether we need to say something to the person concerned, plus when and how it would be best to say it.  Or perhaps some action needs to be taken, and a plan can be formulated.

So in the angry example of John and the numbers above, the adult part might say:

“And I agree with you that this isn’t acceptable and we can’t go on this way.  We are going to need to explain to John how his actions are impacting us and make a request that he does things differently in future.  And if he’s not willing to change how he does things we’re going to need to take things up with his boss”.  (Obviously the exact nature of the plan you make will depend on the exact situation and what’s actually possible in your company).

The good news here is that the plan will be formulated by a balanced adult part of your psychology, not a vengeful child-like part of you.  This means that your response is much more likely to measured and level, which can only be a good thing for all concerned!

I call this the LEVER method – Listen, Empathise, Validate and Reassure/Respond.  You can find more details and examples on how to use it in my previous article.

 

Becoming whole

The effect of including and feeling all our emotions is that we have an embodied sense of becoming whole.  We are no longer fighting ourselves on the inside, trying to pretend what’s happening isn’t happening.  And a massive side-benefit to this is a deep sense of self-acceptance and self-confidence.

When someone is genuinely self-confident we often say that they are “comfortable in their own skins”.  What do we mean by this?  Simply that they are OK with who they are, how they think and and how they feel.  When we can come to peace, moment by moment with “what we are like”, these are the results.

In my experience, the most deeply compelling speakers and leaders are those who have achieved this sense of inner acceptance and peace.

It’s not a one-shot deal.  It’s something that we need to practice on an ongoing basis, moment by moment.  Including more, accepting more, coming more to this sense of peace.

 

Accentuate the positive!

And yet for all that I’ve spoken in favour of including difficult feelings and sensations, there is still great value in “accentuating the positive”.  (And also including “Mr In-between” instead of ignoring him/them).

As you will have gathered, I don’t believe that emotions are truly “positive” or “negative” – all emotions and sensations are actually valuable.  Yet it is often really helpful in our lives to actively include the easy and the neutral ones (the ones that most people call “positive”).

Difficult feelings can often feel overwhelming to feel.  The dis-identification and conducting technique that I outlined above can be very helpful for making things feel less intense.  But another way of reducing the intensity of difficult feeling and emotions is to deliberately include pleasant and even neutral sensations.

This is akin to putting milk into a bitter espresso coffee to create a latte or a cappuccino. Some people are happy to drink an espresso neat, but many people find it more palatable with the addition of the more neutral flavour of lots of milk.

As human beings we are hard-wired to fixate and focus on what is painful, difficult or negative.  (There were evolutionary advantages to this).  If you want to understand the science behind this check out Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson.  This tendency is unhelpful since it deprives us of a sense of perspective and tends to make the difficult feelings feel “too much”.  From there we often either bounce out and dissociate from the difficult feelings, try to ignore them, or wallow in a sense of being overwhelmed by them.  None of these responses are particularly helpful.

As an antidote to this, when we are feeling strong emotions, it can be very useful to notice the parts of our body that are not strongly affected.  For most people strong emotions are felt in the torso, but the hands and the feet usually feel pretty neutral.  To deliberately include these more neutral sensations will actually make difficult emotions or sensations feel less intense.

If there are pleasant things that you can focus on or include, this will give you a much greater sense of balance or perspective.

They may be sensations in your body that feel nice, such as relaxation or warmth.  They may be objects around you that you find beautiful or touching – a tree, a flower or a photo of someone you love.  Or they may be facts about your life that you find reassuring or happy – thinking about someone you love, a recent success you have had, or something you feel grateful for in your life.

My partner and I spend the last moments of every day together sharing what we are grateful for.  On dark and difficult days, it doesn’t make our troubles go away, but it does make life feel considerably easier.  In other words, the song has it partly right – accentuating the positive is a really supportive thing to do.

So it’s not a great song, but my overall recommendation would be to: accentuate the positive, include the negative, latch on to the affirmative and make friends with Mr In-Between! Not as classic, to be sure, but perhaps a bit more modern and helpful.

~

P.S. If you’d like some one to one coaching on this or any other aspect of Leadership or Public Speaking I’m happy to work with you 1-2-1 you Zoom or Skype.  Just get in touch.  

Daniel Kingsley
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