A man five years your senior informs you that you’re not getting any younger. The woman you’ve gone on three great dates with confesses that she’s married. Your new love suddenly ceases all communication.
Dating can be an extremely emotionally raw experience, yet it’s frequently treated like fun and games. “Enjoy it!” your married friends say. “Be positive!” the dating gurus exhort.
Smiles and giggles are great, but there are times when you simply cannot turn that frown upside-down.
And that’s okay. In a new book, The Upside of Your Dark Side, authors Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener explain that while our culture consistently urges us to push away our negative emotions, we’re better off letting them be.
Unpleasant feelings, they explain, provide useful information. For example, if you feel angry when your date grills you about your age, that’s an entirely appropriate response. Someone is treating you poorly, and your internal alarm system is telling you to stay away. If you feel guilty for failing to return that nice person’s text, good. Your moral compass is signaling that you’ve fallen short of your standards.
“People who try desperately to escape, conceal, and avoid negative states, miss out on all this valuable information,” the authors write. “To be absolutely clear about this, you want to feel the prickle of fear in situations where physical harm is possible; you want to feel the thrust of anger when you need to stick up for your children; you want to feel frustration when you make inadequate progress in your guitar lessons and you want to regret telling your children they aren’t intelligent, attractive or good people.”
Those who allow themselves to experience their dark sides not only receive the benefit of this data; the authors’ research finds that they are also calmer and more emotionally balanced than people who try to repress their negative feelings.
Kashdan and Biswas-Diener found that anxious people who could articulate their feelings consumed 40% less alcohol than those who couldn’t, and the ability to label anger made subjects less likely to be verbally or physically aggressive to others.
When you can see what’s happening in your mind and your body—oh, my heart rate is going up, and my thinking is getting a little cloudy—you can take a step back from it, rather than getting carried away by it. You can realize that something physiological is happening to you and take measures to counteract it, like taking three deep breaths. You can, as a meditation teacher of mine recently said, “ride the emotion, rather than let it ride you.”
But first, you have to admit that there is nothing wrong with feeling angry—or anxious, or depressed, or guilty. That’s the funny irony: The light can only come in when you stop fearing the dark.