mad anthony

Rants, politics, and thoughts on politics, technology, life,
and stuff from a generally politically conservative Baltimoron.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The power of negative thinking...

We had a presentation at our "all hands" meeting at work today about how to deal with holiday stress, given by a psychologist. It did include a lot of good concrete advice for dealing with stuff - take time for yourself, exercise, eat right, don't overdo the food or booze, ect. (he also suggested limiting caffeine, which would be the most stressful thing I could imagine doing).

But while he's a nice guy and means well, I think he was a little too positive. I think negative thinking is severely underrated. I think things like guilt, fear, and a desire to achieve perfection do make us stressed - but they are also great motivators. They make us do things that we can't do if we take a warm, fuzzy, "things will be fine" attitude. For example, at one point he said that "we often find ourselves looking at the amount of things that we have to do and say that we'll never get it done. But when we look back on other times we've said that, we've been able to get everything done." Maybe. But chances are the reason that we got everything done is because we looked at the amount of stuff we had to do, said "I'm never going to get done", and then did concrete things to make sure it did - starting early, working late, planning schedules, delegating, finding shortcuts, whatever. If you had just looked at it and said "it will get done somehow", it probably wouldn't have, because you wouldn't have had the incentive to do stuff to make sure it gets done.

I think the same is true of a lot of things. There are plenty of achievements I've had, from doing well in school to losing weight to saving money, where fear was my primary motivator - knowing that if I failed that class I'd lose my scholarship, or that if I didn't keep on my diet and go to the gym I'd probably be dead of a heart attack by age 45, or if I didn't keep a tight reign on my spending I'd be homeless, living under a bridge and eating out of a dumpster.

The same is true of guilt. The talk about guilt and family pressure was especially relevant to me, because I'm torn at Christmas - when we get a ton of time off where I work - between spending it all with my parents in NJ, who have a bunch of health problems and could use all the help they can get - and spending it in Maryland, where my house, my cat, my friends, and pretty much everything I own are. If I don't spend all of it with the parents, I'll probably feel guilty - and I should. Given the sacrifices my parents have made throughout their life for me, I'm pretty much a piece of shit if I can't give them a couple extra days. I should feel bad about it. Guilt is generally a way of letting us know that we're doing something that we shouldn't. We shouldn't ignore it and tell ourselves that it's something we should overcome with positive thinking about how great we are - we should look at why we feel guilty and try not to do it.

Pop Psychology loves to try to make life all hearts and rainbows, to try to take negatives like stress and sadness and guilt and fear out of life. But those things are a part of life for a reason - they are survival tools that helped us survive since our ancestors lived in caves, that helped us form coherent societies. They are real emotions that should be embraced, not worked around or ignored.


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