Why is it important to embrace our “dark side” every now and then? The power of negative emotions, stress and anxiety, and even “Dark Triad” personality traits.
One of the major themes of my work is that all emotions serve a valuable function in our lives. This includes not just the positive, “feel good” aspects of our mind but also the negative, “feel bad” aspects of our mind.
The simple truth is our minds have evolved to experience negative emotions because they are sometimes very adaptive. They help us navigate our lives in a smarter and more effective way.
This is why it’s often counterproductive to think of emotions as solely “positive” or “negative,” but instead to ask yourself, “Am I responding to this emotion in a constructive or destructive way?”
Because you might experience an intense negative emotion like fear, or anger, or guilt, but it can ultimately drive you to change your behavior and become a better person at the end of the day.
How you respond to your emotions is more important than the specific content of your emotions – and that’s what true emotional intelligence is about.
Reframing negative emotions
According to the 20 years of neuroscientific research myself and my colleagues conducted, positive emotions tend to make people more open-minded, while negative emotions tend to make people more narrow-minded.
But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes “narrow-mindedness” is a good thing because it helps you to focus on what’s important and filter out what isn’t important.
Negative emotions often sharpen our focus toward a particular problem in life. It’s our mind’s way of saying, “Hey we need to pay attention to this and do something about it!”
Therefore negative emotions can often motivate us to change our behavior and take action when we know the best ways to respond to them.
In this way, negative emotions are to be embraced and not always seen as a “bad thing” in and of themselves. Indeed, studies have shown that “feeling bad about feeling bad” can often make you feel even worse. People that try to hide or suppress their negative emotions 24/7 are likely hurting their ability to learn, grow, and improve in the long-term.
Here are some of the ways negative emotions can motivate us in a healthy and constructive way:
- Anger – When we feel angry about something, that often motivates us to do something to change the situation. For example, if we see innocent people being treated unfairly, that’s going to make us feel angry and want to intervene to make a difference. Many social activists have been driven by some sense of anger because they are fed up with the status quo.
- Fear – When we feel fearful about something, we recognize it as a potential threat or danger. This motivates you to face the danger and fight it, or to flee from the danger and get away from it. The most common example used in psychology is fear of animal predators, like a bear. It’s completely rational to be afraid of something if it poses a real and legitimate threat.
- Sadness – When we feel sad about something, that often means we are unsatisfied about the way something is going in life – whether it’s related to work, relationships, or health. Sadness can motivate you to reflect and ruminate about a problem in life, and ultimately try to think of ways you can solve it or change it.
- Guilt – When we feel guilty about something, that often means you have acted in a way that has disappointed yourself or other people around you. This can motivate you to try to “make up” for the bad deed by doing something nice for someone or apologizing. It’s also an important emotion if you want to correct your bad behavior in the future.
In all of these situations, negative emotions grab our attention and call us to take action in one form or another.
In this way your “dark side” can be a very strong catalyst for making healthy changes. But if you try to always suppress this “dark side” or ignore your negative emotions, you risk missing out on the important lessons they have to teach you.
Reframing stress and anxiety
Stress and anxiety are other facets of our psychology that we often try to ignore or get rid of. However, like negative emotions, stress and anxiety are something that play a very important role in a healthy mind.
Typically, when we are stressed, it activates a “fight, flight, or freeze” response in our bodies and nervous system. This adrenaline rush is designed to get us to take action and respond to our stress and anxiety in some way.
While stress and anxiety can be very unpleasant (and destructive in high doses), moderate levels of stress and anxiety are necessary and can actually be a useful guide.
Here’s a bit of what I teach my clients to use our daily stressors to our benefit and on how we can reframe each of these responses:
- Reframing “Fight” – Stress can motivate you to focus on your problems and take active measures to face them and fix them. For example, feeling stressed out about an exam can motivate you to study harder so you make sure you do well.
- Reframing “Flight” – Stress can help you identify things in your life that cause you unnecessary or excessive stress, giving you an idea of some things in life you may want to cut out. For example, if a certain person at work stresses you out, you may try your best to minimize the time you spend talking to them.
- Reframing “Freeze” – Stress can cause you to take a step back and re-evaluate a situation before going back to it. For example, if you’re feeling stressed out about a job, you may want to reflect on how much the job really means to you and whether it’s worth it to stay.
In these ways, our “fight, flight, or freeze” response can be another important part of our “dark side” that we should embrace every now and then.
Stress signals to us that we are pushing ourselves through difficult times. However, stress shows that we care and we’re trying our best, but when stress levels get too high it indicates that it may be time to take a step back and recharge ourselves, in order to face the challenge with more energy.
Reframing the “Dark Triad” personality traits
The “Dark Triad” is a set of 3 different personality traits: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy.
Often these traits are associated with evil and malevolence. Narcissism is an inflated sense of ego, pride, and selfishness. Machiavellianism is associated with manipulation, ruthlessness, and exploitation of others. Psychopathy is related to antisocial behavior, callousness, and a lack of empathy.
If a person scores high on these “Dark Triad” personality traits, they are far more likely to engage in criminal activity, infidelity/betrayal, lack a moral compass, and end up hurting other people. However, the truth is all these personality traits are on a spectrum and we all have them to some degree.
My research and studies show that having these traits can be beneficial in some circumstances. For example, one recent study I conducted in 2014, shows that “Dark Triad” characteristics are associated with leadership and career success. And yet another study shows these traits can often be seen as attractive in men and women.
In small doses, we can see how these “Dark Triad” characteristics can sometimes be positive and useful:
- Reframing Narcissism – In small doses, narcissism is associated with a healthy sense of confidence and self-worth. It means you stick up for yourself and your values without letting people walk all over you.
- Reframing Machiavellianism – In small doses, Machiavellianism is associated with social intelligence. It enables you to communicate effectively, know how to persuade others, and rally people around a certain idea or cause.
- Reframing Psychopathy – In small doses, psychopathy is associated with motivation, goal-seeking, and creativity. For example, psychopaths often have an easier time “breaking the rules” and being nonconformist, which in some situations can be a valuable trait.
Of course these “Dark Triad” traits aren’t necessarily something that should always be celebrated. However, we can see how some of these traits can be useful and beneficial in normal, everyday people.
In fact, many leaders and important figures in today’s world probably rank higher on these characteristics than the average person. Often it takes a certain amount of grandiosity and self-importance to take on a “leadership” role – this includes presidents, founders, politicians, CEOs, famous musicians, successful athletes, and celebrities of all types.
The mind is a very complex and interesting thing. While many of the things I discuss in this article can be dangerous and destructive in severely high doses, they can also be healthy and constructive to embrace every now and then.