The Upside of Your Dark Side

Summary Written by Jill Donahue
"One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious."

- C.G. Jung, quoted in The Upside of Your Dark Side, page 188

The Big Idea

Maybe perfect balance is NOT the goal

"You can’t always be happy, but you can almost always be profoundly aware and curious."- The Upside of Your Dark Side, page 212

Phew! The pressure is lifted. Are you on a constant quest to keep love, work and play in perfect balance? And it always seems just slightly out of reach? The authors teach us that perfect balance is not what it means to be whole.

Being whole, they say, is rather about being open to and accommodating all aspects of your personality; the light and dark passengers, the strengths and weaknesses, the successes and failures.

They assure us that acknowledging and welcoming the seemingly contradictory aspects of your self will increase your power and influence as well as the vitality, agility and perseverance you can bring to work and life.

What they discovered is that by understanding and distinguishing negative emotions, we can transform them and detoxify them. Knowing whether someone is experiencing a great deal of negativity does not tell us whether they are going to be successful. That depends, rather, on whether they are effective at differentiating what they are feeling.

This is a huge step beyond simple “positivity = good and negativity = bad” thinking. Your attitude toward the emotions being experienced and your ability to identify what you are feeling are key to your success.

Instead of sweeping these feelings under the rug, I am going to be more conscious of them and how they are serving me.

Insight #1

Wholeness is better than happiness

"…the counterintuitive truth: happiness sometimes backfires, and bad states are sometimes good."- The Upside of Your Dark Side, page xiv

The authors present a new way to pursue happiness or what is desirable in life: wholeness. They believe that every emotion is useful. Think about the unwanted, even negative events in your life – when hearts were broken, interviews were botched, shots were missed. These undoubtedly became seeds of growth. They likely shaped some of the most memorable and inspiring experiences in your life. When we learn to embrace these negative emotions, we position ourselves for success.

The authors assure us that they are not opposed to happiness, positivity, kindness and mindfulness. In fact, they embrace them. And they believe there is more. When you accept the challenge of drawing on the dark side when it’s most helpful, you bring wholeness within reach. The authors “reject the notion that positivity is the only place to search for answers.”

I found this especially comforting. I’ve loved and embraced the lessons from the new positive psychology movement. And at times was frustrated that I couldn’t push out the less than positive emotions. I see now that it may be a good thing I didn’t. Those emotions help me to be whole. It reminds me of exercise. By exercising one muscle group, it will help another. They are interconnected.

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Insight #2

Distress Tolerance

"We now have scientific evidence suggesting that this single-minded pursuit of happiness is akin to trying to grab a bar of soap in the bathtub."- The Upside of Your Dark Side, page 108

What quality do you think distinguishes those best equipped to resolve marital conflict? Not sure? This quality is also the leading predictor of success in elite military training programs. Still not sure? And this same quality distinguishes those best equipped to achieve favorable deal terms in business negotiations; and to bestow the gift of good parenting on their children! Whatever it is… I bet you want it!

It is the ability to tolerate psychological discomfort.

Psychologists refer to it as distress tolerance. Think of it as the emotional equivalent to camping (no shampoo, flush toilets or walls to keep out the bugs). People with distress tolerance don’t shy away from feelings that make them feel bad, like boredom, anger or guilt. Instead they withstand the discomfort and even draw on what they can learn from those feelings.

The authors reject the belief that being healthy is marked by a life with as little pain as possible. Embracing the discomfort allows you to become stronger, wiser, more mentally agile and happier in a more resilient and durable way.

We are now much less accustomed to hardships than our ancestors were. The 1990’s were when the comfort addiction began in earnest, the authors suggest. Researchers observed a related drop in our psychological health. Anxiety was on the rise (and continues to this day).

Think of road rage. We no longer have the capacity to tolerate the small frustrations of rush hour traffic. Today we enjoy unprecedented comfort yet depression is higher than ever. Too much comfort is undermining our hardiness and that of our children. Sadly, in our obsessive effort to create safe, hygienic and psychologically supportive environments for our children, we may be making their lives more difficult by not strengthening their hardiness muscle.

I always thought that my husband’s childhood experiences camping with hundreds of mosquitoes, hauling canoes for mile-long portages and enduring time alone on an island for “survival” training made him a better, more patient man. According to these authors, I should profusely thank his parents for that investment in building John’s distress tolerance!

We all have an overwhelming desire to improve the quality of our life. Instead of focusing on avoidance of pain and doubling down on pleasure as solutions, we should embrace the myriad of emotions and experiences life offers and learn from each of them.

Read the book

Get The Upside of Your Dark Side on Amazon.

Robert Biswas Diener

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is widely known as the Indiana Jones of Positive Psychology because his research on happiness has taken him to such far flung places as Greenland, India and Kenya. He is the managing director of Positive Acorn. He sits on the editorial boards of the Journal of Happiness Studies and Journal of Positive Psychology a part-time instructor at Portland State University and. Robert is a Certified Mentor Coach (CMC) and has worked with clients on four continents. Robert is author of The Courage Quotient (2012), Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching (2010), Happiness: Unlocking the mysteries of psychological wealth (2008). He is also co-founder of the charitable mission The Strengths Project.

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