I spent much of my life suppressing negative emotions.
When I felt anger, sadness, or frustration arise, I’d banish them into a dark basement, lock the door, and throw away the key. I’d pretend everything was alright and force myself to look on the bright side.
Here’s the problem: Negative emotions, when suppressed, don’t go away.
They start doing push-ups.
They start downing Red Bulls.
Sooner or later, they bust open the lock on the basement door and roar back louder than ever.
I was reminded of this problem as I read an advance copy of my friend Susan Cain’s excellent book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, which came out this week. In the book, Cain explores how embracing bittersweetness can provide the key to creativity, connection, and transcendence. The book is an antidote to toxic positivity—which advocates for always looking on the bright side, while shoving negative emotions in a dark basement.
In one part of the book, Cain explains the importance of writing about negative emotions in order to process them. “Write exactly what’s wrong, and how you feel about it and why; write why you feel disappointed or betrayed, what you’re afraid of,” she advises.
Cain’s advice resonates with my own experience. A few years ago, I abandoned my lifelong practice of banishing negative emotions, and instead chose to give them voice. When I found myself in an emotional funk, I faced it head on, diving in with curiosity, and writing about my scattered feelings. Several times a week, I’d take 10 minutes in the morning to journal about what kept me up at night, what I was struggling with at work, or why I felt sad after a conversation.
My journal became a place where I’d make sense of myself and my life. I learned to sit with and learn from all of me—both my bitter and my sweet.
Research supports the life-changing magic of this practice. In Bittersweet, Cain cites a series of research studies that divided participants into two groups. One group wrote about emotionally difficult experiences, and the other group wrote about common things (e.g., what kind of shoes they were wearing that day). Both groups wrote for 20 minutes a day, three days in a row. In each study, the group that wrote about their difficulties experienced significant improvements in their physical and mental well-being compared to the other group.
For this practice to work, you must be honest with yourself when you write.
This is harder than it sounds.
When I first started journaling, I found myself lying—to myself. I would come up with a polished narrative to hide a negative emotion or write a curated account of what happened, instead of revealing the truth.
Remember: Your journal isn’t Instagram. You’re not writing to get published or get credit. You need to allow room for all of your imperfect glory. If you have doubts, don’t bury them. If you feel emotions that you’ve been told you “shouldn’t” be feeling, accept and acknowledge them.
Writing takes these difficulties outside of you, and helps ensure they don’t eat you alive on the inside.
In the end, you’re a living, breathing, imperfect human being who has experienced joy and suffering, triumph and despair, and love and grief.
You’re better off embracing these multitudes rather than suppressing them.