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On Negativity

4 min

Hi friends,

This piece came out of my study of Maurice Nicoll's Psychological Commentaries a couple years ago. He writes beautifully about the importance of dis-identifying from one's negative states.

I read it during the early months of fatherhood and it was a welcome companion to 2am diaper changes and prolonged sleep deprivation. Parenting is full of opportunities to study and interrupt our negativity.

To minimize potential misunderstanding:

Take care,‌‌‌‌‌‌


On Negativity

Some people are more negative than other people.

We all have negativity in us.

We encounter some people that are living in a cloud of negativity. They are critical of others, critical of themselves, critical of whatever is happening around them and within them.

Create an aim to observe the dynamics of negativity in yourself. Notice the voices in you that are negative. Don’t be so quick to believe them.

People generally pursue a path towards happiness which involves pursuing good events/circumstances and avoiding bad events/circumstances.

We want good things to happen to us. We don’t want bad things to happen to us. We want good people and things, we don’t want bad people and things.

The premise here is that our internal states are caused by the outer events and circumstances in our lives.

It is an essential perspective shift to realize that you are responsible for your inner states, and to take responsibility for them.

The idea that negativity is undesirable is not novel. “Be positive” is generally how it is presented. There are a couple issues with this.

First, there is a difference between not indulging negativity, and proactively being positive.

Second, people act as if this is as simple as choosing to do it. The truth is that being able to maintain a “kind, stable, and buoyant mind” [1] requires many years of inner work (or perhaps a very lucky mix of genetic predisposition and optimal early childhood experiences).

All of the world’s wisdom traditions have teachings on the cultivation of good character. On learning to be kind and generous of spirit. This is a hard thing to do.

We all have many bad mental and emotional habits. We actually enjoy our negativity and suffering.

We blame, complain, or pity ourselves. We ruminate and rehash the same tired narratives over and over and over. We sing these inner songs endlessly.

This drains us of a tremendous amount of force.

Have you considered what your life would be like if your were free from your negativity? From the judgement, criticism, self-righteousness, complaining, arrogance, shame, pettiness, cruelty, depression, anxiousness, agitation, etc.

For anyone above the age of 30, these negative states are like old friends. We are so accustomed to them being with us, we can hardly imagine life without them.

Imagine over the course of one month that you could record the ebbs and flows of your inner states. Your thoughts, feelings, moods, attitudes, outlooks. And then took it as a whole and looked for patterns. What would you find?

We tend to be so identified with whatever drama or daydream is happening in the moment that we don’t realize it is an extremely repetitive pattern of thought/feeling/action that we are cycling through.

We are accustomed to thinking our inner state is a result of what is happening around us. But what if you had a right to not be negative? What if your negativity is a conditioned response that can be re-conditioned?

"Gratitude or resentment? What will it be today." [2]

This capacity to transmute negative emotion into better internal states is a kind of superpower that remains dormant for many people. It’s the alchemical turning of lead into gold.

It’s quite different than insincere politeness or pretending to be happy. That is a kind of lying. It is a denial of our inner state, and an outward expression that is incongruent with our inner state. It is possible to actually transform our internal state and have our outward expression flow transparently from that. To transform our selfishness, pettiness, and negativity into compassion, warmth, and care.

Thankfully, the transformation of negative states is as simple as remaining present to them and allowing them to be there, rather than trying to suppress, repress, or escape from them. If we actually observe them as they arise, they transform on their own.

Simple, not easy.

In order to have a mature and genuine heartfelt care for all beings we have to first intimately explore the forces of shame, hate, rage, lust, greed, depression, terror. That is, we have to wrestle with our negativity.

So: struggle against automatic negativity in yourself. Don't just identify with it. Notice it and become larger than it. Rather than saying "I" to it, see it as a patterned, habitual phenomena that is arising in your experience. "Oh, there's resentment"...or "Ah, here's complaining".

Imagine that inner states have a flavor, color, and texture to them. Hatred, envy, greed, narcissism: these all taste bad. They have an odor. People can smell it on you. It lowers your level of being and prevents you from accessing higher states of being.

And if you think you aren't negative, or don't experience these states, then ask your loved ones. They will happily point them out for you.

People who have committed themselves to doing this work have a buoyancy and radiance about them, which is a possibility for anyone who sincerely wishes to attain it.


  1. A phrase in Norman Fischer's book Training in Compassion that has stuck with me.
  2. This was printed on a bookmark I received during a year-long training in Integral Coaching I did with James Flaherty. It encapsulates this choice point between resenting the world or other people for not conforming to my needs versus gratitude for being alive.

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