After several years of studies on pathology, positive psychology taught us to understand the dynamics of success, describe the characteristics and the skills of happy people and develop instruments to empower people’s strong parts, helping them achieve their goals and desires.
“If you want you can” has become a sort of mantra for generations of confident, enterprising and sometimes even fanciful dreamers.
This has been a fundamental shift of paradigm. Over the years, we set aside (at least partially) the approach that overlapped psychology to pathology. Today we know that psychological support might also be precious to gain empowerment, strength and exchange ideas.
We know that psychology passionately and keenly studies the processes connected to success, healthy psychological development as well as the empowerment of useful and vital skills such as decision making, empathy, trust, assertiveness. Such an orientation towards the positive, however, risks being affected by one of the major issues in Western culture: we shun pain. We avoid negative experiences, deny them and try to dodge them as soon as we can.
Sometimes we feel we are victims of pain, and we deem it unfair. We do not learn to be with our pain, observe it, let it flow as part of our very existence. We underappreciate, fight and deny it. Similarly, another risk is that of viewing positive psychology only as the experience and theory of well-being and success, as some models and “testimonial” tend to present it. You are successful if you feel well. If you feel well you are successful. A “Norman Rockwell” simplification…
On the contrary, oriental philosophy, which has nowadays been condensed in the mindfulness approach, underlines the centrality of being, of a curious, open and not judgmental attitude in front of any experience, being it characterized by pleasure, indifference or pain. We immediately make a discrimination instead: we are thrilled by pleasure and we shun pain.
Then we learn to resist and we confuse acceptance with resignation. We only explore some portions of reality and lose others. We don’t develop effective instruments to be truly resilient.
In our work we often directly connect being successful to being motivated and, similarly, we connect experiencing failure to being demotivated: does our level of motivation solely depends on being in a positive or negative period of life?
Does it uniquely depend on the approval or disapproval of someone else (the company, our boss, the market)?
We learn to take failures badly and we magnify difficulties, filling them with negative emotions and thoughts (“this is not fair”, “I don’t deserve it”, “they re crossed with me” “I did everything wrong” “It’s my fault”, “I am a failure”…) but who said that it has to be necessarily like this?
So, I allow myself to make a provocation: people always talk about realizing their dreams, what if we learned to realize our nightmares too? Or, at least, to “frequent” them in a more calm way? Nightmares hide a potential, that of our shadow side, of the part of ourselves that are there but that we do not learn to appreciate and, often times, not even to integrate. We want to be only positive, healthy, “perfect”.
On the contrary, the night unveils something about us, it forces us to come to terms with our vulnerability and to let go of rationality at all costs.
Therefore, we can approach our frailties, our fears and take a homeopathic dose of them. We can walk also the grounds we don’t like and learn to explore them. We can learn to be what we cannot handle.
In this view, we can learn to be grateful for a failure in our work, a painful loss, a betrayal or an injustice. We can learn to view them as sources of energy, creative solutions and discovery. It is often within pain, boredom and dissatisfaction that we develop a greater contact with ourselves.
Think of an area you feel in crisis about: how are you dealing with it? Use it to take different steps and to acknowledge something new: there, you’ll find new starting points and new pieces of yourself.
I would like to conclude with an example: I met a very smart, energetic, daring and responsible professional. However, he was unable of being a boss. And, in a strenuous attempt to prove the contrary, he was imitating the behavior of a “good manager”.
Too used to win, the shift, for this person, started from acknowledging the defeat, finding the strength