I recently watched a Ted Talk video featuring social psychologist Alison Ledgerwood called “Getting stuck in the negatives (and how to get unstuck).” Coming across the video was one of many coincidental discoveries made during a week when my mood had suddenly jerked from happy and energetic to sullen and exhausted. There is nothing going on in my life that warrants such a shift, in fact my life is filled with all of the things I have always wanted. It seems, though, that on occasion something tips me into the abyss of negative thinking. Professor Ledgerwood’s nine or so minutes of video summed up the answers I had been searching for in asking “why” do I fall into these moods and, even though I have effective coping skills to get out, what stops me from using them?
The experience of living life with extreme shifts between the feeling of all is well to “oh my god everything sucks,” is like riding on a pendulum. The further I am to the bottom the more drastic the mood swings are. The most productive days are those spent closest to the apex of the pendulum, where the swing is barely perceptible. Perfect balance is not conducive to creative production because that neutrality causes a sense of stillness that lacks motivation for me. But a little bit of swing is good because I can feel emotions that inspire creative projects or solutions to challenges.
Staying at the apex of the pendulum is ideal, but sometimes I find myself sliding down toward the bottom. Throughout our lives we experience challenges or trauma that are reasonable explanations for unstable mood. But what about those times when everything seems fine? Why do we suddenly end up back in the extreme swing? In my case, it seems that empathy is part of the answer. Over sensitivity to empathy, or reactive empathy, is a condition that causes one to feel another’s pain so personally it causes physical and emotional changes that may lead to deep depression and feelings of hopelessness. An article I read a week ago in Psychology Today explains it like this:
With empathy, you will feel their stress, anxiety, and anger in your body. You might feel their pain emotionally and physically. If you let theses emotions sit in your body, your body and mind can be emotionally hijacked. –Marcia Reynolds Psy.D., April 15, 2017
The problem deepens when reactive empathy is combined with Prof. Ledgerwood’s discoveries about moving from negative to positive thinking. Wallowing in our own misery meets misery loves company. I see this in myself as I look for reasons to be unhappy, or look for sad things to support my unhappiness. Allowing my empathy to grow and become heavy enough to send me sliding down the pendulum puts me in a vulnerable place I call negativeland. When I am in negativeland I find the climb back to the light too difficult and begin to grasp at anything I can to justify my feelings rather than use the skills I know to get out of there. The longer I stay, the more difficult it seems to be.
Prof. Ledgerwood’s experiments proved that our brains have a much more difficult time moving from negative to positive thoughts than from positive to negative. I can imagine this by looking at a negative thought as being below the water in a deep crevice, with the positive thought above the water high on a hill. If I look at a situation in the positive light I am standing on the top of a hill. Even if new information is introduced that may be negative I refuse to leave the top of the hill to look at it. However, if I am under the water in the crevice after seeing a situation in a negative light, I find it too overwhelming to fight my way to the surface and then climb the hill just to be disappointed that the new information isn’t real.
Knowing our human brain is formed by habitual ways of perceiving the world and reactions to it, and that we have somehow been wired to be more accepting of the negative helps me to understand that I can retrain my brain and make new connections that help me to see things differently. Understanding that my oversensitivity to empathy produces reactions that are toxic to my mental state helps me cope when I let my guard down and find myself sitting at the bottom of the pendulum.
Though it is still a struggle to climb back to the apex, I can begin to move up to a more stable place by reminding myself that I am only in charge of my own life, that I can only control my own decisions and that I am not responsible for anyone else’s happiness. When we take on other people’s problems and try to “fix” them, we are in a sense stepping away from our own life. Sometimes we may find that we are running away from something in our own life or trying to fill a void that we have not dealt with. Taking ownership of my life and being responsible for the things in my own head has to be priority number one. What others do, say or think cannot dictate my happiness. What society, politicians or celebrities do, say or think cannot dictate my happiness. Getting stuck in the negative is my own brain’s doing, getting out comes from the same brain. I know this all to be true, but during times when I forget and find myself at the bottom again, I will remember to let go of the extra weight caused by too much empathy so I can begin to climb back up, and I will stay focused on the brightly lit apex at the top of the pendulum which is where I want to be.