Personal Growth - Loving the negative
by Pulkit Sharma
Thirty-year-old Arun (name changed) brought a painting he had made over the weekend to our psychotherapy session. It was a huge lush green tree standing staggeringly high. At the bottom, were a few decaying leaves and branches. Arun explained that those were his negative aspects – explosive rage and aggression, contempt, devaluation of others, and insensitivity. He felt he was getting rid of all that, and he was extremely happy about it.
It is a consensus that in order to grow and evolve we need to shed our negatives. Arun has been repeatedly educated by several people about his negatives, and the need and methods to divest them. He has been motivated to change and tried several times without any success. When he came to me for psychotherapy, he used the metaphor of a book to describe his self and wished that I would help him tear the ‘negative’ pages from it. However, I felt extremely sad to hear it, as I have been a witness to Arun’s pain as a psychologist. It was the first time in his life that he found words to express himself in a relationship. I reflected back to him that probably he thought that just like everyone else, I would have no love and empathy for his rage, and in order to relate to me he would have to cut himself. There was a fear that even in our relationship, which he was beginning to value, there would be no space for his dead and decayed parts. His eyes filled with tears. These tears were acknowledgement of a faint hope that his negative can be accepted, loved, and transformed.
Any negative thought, emotion, or behaviour, comes into being in an interpersonal context. Whenever someone feels misunderstood, unheard, unloved, or mistreated, the negative comes up for release. In such a context, the negative too has a positive role. It makes the person feel strong and in control, by temporarily warding off feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and despair. The rage has a psychological function, as it prevents the self from disintegration. Generally, when people have a fair mixture of soothing and frustrating experiences, they develop a capacity to let go of their rage. However, prolonged traumatic experiences make the self structured around rage, and lead to a sense of entitlement.
Individuals with such a past are trapped in a cycle of suffering. They long to find someone who can transform their emotions. However, whenever they have a potential relationship, even a slight lack of tuning, which is bound to happen in any normal relationship, revives the pain and vehement rage. It is as if in each new relationship, the person demands, “Give me what has been my due for long,” and the demand is bound to be unfulfilled, because nothing is sufficient to soothe that pain. Consequently, the individual may either end up concluding that transformation is impossible, and withdraw from relationships, or learn to relate to others in a false manner, by disavowing negative parts of the self. Both choices lead to an escalation of pain.
How can one work through this pain? There can be several routes. The path most often recommended is, preaching the value of the positive and the dangers of negative. However, the negative does not understand the language of thought; it understands the language of emotion. Based on my experiences and training as a psychologist, I feel that since the pain emerges in a relational context, it is healed the best in a similar context. The person struggling with the negative, needs the emotional presence of a strong loving other, who can be with this person in the negative tempest, provide holding and see things from the person’s perspective. It is this unique empathic response and presence, which helps the person mourn what was lacking. After a long process of mourning, the person is able to internalise an image of the loving other, and the internalisation brings a transformation.
By simply banishing the negative, we re-traumatise the person, giving them the message that their pain is false. This lack of empathy, no matter how well-intentioned, can be disastrous. Therefore, in order to transform, the negative needs to be acknowledged, understood, and loved.
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