The Upside of Your Dark Side 

The Upside of Your Dark Side 

The title alone is enough to make you grab the book off the shelf. The nuggets of wisdom in ToddKashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener’s The Upside of Your Dark Side are enough to keep you reading straight through. The core of the message is being your whole self – not just your “good” self – drives success and fulfillment.

The authors draw upon years of research to make their case that we need the emotions that make us uncomfortable. It’s not about dwelling on negativity anymore than it is to worship positivity. The key lies in emotional, social, and mental agility – “the ability to access our full range of emotions and behavior, not just the “good ones” in order to respond most effectively to whatever situation we encounter.” That agility gets applied to managing unclear expectations, struggling with self-motivation, and balancing the use of social support with private reflection. The ability to tolerate psychological discomfort – our capacity for distress tolerance that leads to resilience and wholeness – is the best predictor scientists and scholars have for determining how well we resolve marital conflicts, negotiate a business deal, or become a good parent.

“It turns out that the uncertainty, frustration, and occasional dash of guilt that stem from broken hearts, missed basketball shots at the buzzer, and botched interviews are the seeds of growth in knowledge and maturity. These often unwanted, negative experiences end up shaping some of the most memorable and inspiring experiences of our lives. By learning to embrace and use negative emotions as well as positive ones, we position ourselves for success.”

May these tools and reflections be useful in healing and awakening into your own aliveness andwholeness.


There is a not so hidden prejudice against negative states, and the consequence of avoiding these states is that you inadvertently stunt your growth, maturity, adventure, and meaning and purpose in life.

In The Upside of Your Dark Side, the authors offer a corrective to the last 20 years of the positive psychology movement which itself was meant to be a corrective to psychology’s focus on pathology for the 40 years before that. We’re still in the upswing of that paradigm shift; tools of mindfulness, kindness, compassion, gratitude are being widely integrated intoevery aspect of modern life. And researchers have found great benefit to focusing on the positive. Happiness – the subjective experience of contentment and well-being, measured by researchers in the frequency of positive thoughts v. negative thoughts (3.1 ratio) – has many benefits. People with more positivity:

* Experience better health

* Have happier marriages

* Earn more money

* Are more generous

* Are promoted more often by their bosses

* Receive better customer and supervision evaluations at work

* Are more likely to be social, exploratory, and inventive

The problem is when we conflate happiness with success or self-worth. The authors suggest that “happiness is not the solution to the human condition” and that refusing to face negativeemotions and distress can cause a considerable amount of suffering. They are deft atproposing an integration of negative and positive emotions rather than the polarization of them as the key to success and fulfillment. “Human potential and managing the dark sides of humanity do not need to be in conflict with each other. By merging these two themes, we gain full access to the complexity of what it means to be human.”

The authors acknowledge they are not focusing on coping with major disasters or traumas. They are focusing on the very human tendencies to avoid negative experiences and negative emotions; that especially in America we can be addicted to comfort which actually diminishes our capacities to deal skillfully with the disappointments and difficulties of the average, everyday life. Admittedly First World problems.

“Given so many amenities available to us today, we’ve developed a tendency to avoid discomfort. We whip out our smartphones the moment we’re left alone – boredom vanquished! We jockey for the fastest lane on the freeway – no frustrating waits! We flip on the television when we get home from work – no other unwinding and de-stressing needed! What most folks don’t realize is that this seemingly natural attraction to an easier life is rooted in avoidance of discomfort. People who fear rejection avoid meetings others; people who fear failure don’t take risks, and people who fear intimacy turn to television and email when they get home from work. Avoidance is the tectonic issue of our time.”

They suggest that a ratio of 80-20, positive to negative, is what leads best to optimal functioning. The authors are looking for ways not to avoid negative emotions but to take the negative out of them. They offer many examples of the upside of the dark side from current research:

* Students who are confused but work through the confusion perform better on subsequent tests than their peers who “get it” right away.

* Centenarians – people who are a hundred years old or older – find that negative feelings, not positive ones, are associated with better health and more physical activity.

* Police detectives who have themselves been victims of crime show more grit and work engagement when working with civilians victims of crime.

* Spouse who forgave physical or verbal aggression were likely to receive more of it, whereas those who were unforgiving enjoyed a precipitous decline in spousal aggression.

* Workers who are in a bad mood in the morning but shift to a good mood in the afternoon are more engrossed in their work than their counterparts who were happy all day.

[These research findings coincide with a post I’ve written for the Greater Good Science Center, which will post this week or next, on findings that people who have coped with adversity in the past develop more capacities to savor life’s pleasures now than people who have not suffered similar adversities.]

“Modern people are less accustomed to hardship than our forebears, who had to contendwith world wars, economic depressions, influenza epidemics, and other pervasive hardships. Relative wealth and advances in technology mean that nowadays we enjoy unprecedented comfort. They also mean that we increasingly view discomfort as toxic, unmanageable, and intolerable.

“If Western societies can open themselves to a little more danger, a bit more risk, a touch more hardship, and even a little more failure, then we stand to regain some of the mental toughness that goes hand in glove with such experiences. It’s always daunting to consider making a major shift; even so, some change is necessary if we want to be hardier, more psychologically well-rounded people.

The key to benefiting from experiencing negative emotions is distress tolerance.

“People make a mistake not in their desire to avoid the unpleasant, but rather in underestimating their ability to adequately tolerate the distress of negative emotions. You’re more capable of handling unpleasant emotions than you give yourself credit for. You can carry difficult thoughts and feelings inside, observe them, but know that you and they are not the same. This idea bears repeating: you are not your psychological experiences, even though they can affect you. If may sound strange – radical even – to suggest that somehow you are not the same things as your thoughts and feelings. You are not just the uncomfortable thoughts in your mind and the feelings they trigger – precisely because you can observe those thoughts and feelings. Whatever or whoever this observer is – the self, the personality, the soul, call it what you will – it is, by definition set apart from those feelings and the fact that you can observe them is proof of this. When you recognize this observer as being separate from the pain, you can become better at tolerating that pain.”

“The important question is this: what purpose do negative emotions serve? As it turns out, they’re an important part of our healthy emotional architecture. Although they can be messy, unpleasant, and sometimes problematic, negative emotions are also very useful. Emotions – all emotions – are information…. People who try desperately to escape, conceal and avoid negative states, miss out on all this valuable information. To be absolutely clear about this:

You want to feel the prickle of fear in situations where physical harm is possible;

You want to feel the thrust of anger when you need to stick up for your children.

You want to feel frustration when you make inadequate progress in your guitar lessons, and

You want to regret telling your children they aren’t intelligent, attractive or good people.

“In each instance, these emotions signal that something isn’t going right and needs your imminent attention. Immediately trying to tamp down the bad emotion of anger, or any other feeling, does little to shed light on why the anger has arisen and what course of action it might be pointing to. It’s difficult to emphasize how important this is. Just imagine living in a world in which no one really felt disappointment when they failed at a cherished goal. Or in which you could not access fear even in the presence of a fire in the home basement, or adirty hypodermic needle floating next to you during an ocean swim. Without such so-called negative feelings, we would be living in a world devoid of fully functioning humans.”

Part of being a fully functioning human being is to see the positive in the negative, to be able to use those negative states when it is to our advantage to do so. Researchers are finding that because unhappiness tends to cause people to focus on the specific and on details (whereas happiness tends to cause people to have a fuzzy, rosy perspective on things), when people are in a negative frame of mind they are more persuasive, less naïve, can remember facts of an event more clearly, can detect deception more easily, are less biased in assessing the emotional expressions of others.

Becoming emotionally, socially, and mentally agile is what the authors teach throughout the book. (Illustrated in the quotes, stories, and exercises below.)

“The central feature of a person who is whole is that they show great skill in negotiating all that life serves up. They possess what we call emotional agility. They can get the best possible outcome in a situation by matching their behavior – from the bright side or the dark side – to the challenge being faced. They can draw both sides of nearly every personality trait: serious and playful, passionate and objective, extraverted and introverted, selfless and selfish. They are kind but selective about who their time and energy goes to. Finally, people who are whole benefit from their unwillingness to discard qualities just because society deems them less valuable.

“Social agility is the ability to recognize how one situation differs from another, and to adjust our behavior to match these changing demands. Socially agile people are proactive, selecting, and influencing the situations they encounter. Depending on the specifics of the situation, socially agile people can be warm, tell white lies, or apply pressure; they can name-drop, flirt, compliment and offer support. They can even casually mention that the refrigerator was recently cleaned in order to get full credit from a spouse or housemate. Socially agile people are not Machiavellian, but they do operate by a more inclusive and flexible set of social rules than the basic “play nice.” Interestingly, in many instances when we bend the rules, it’s not with personal gain in mind to help others feel, good, to strengthen relationships, and to achieve meaningful goals.”

Near the end of the book, the authors apply this agility to finding a balance between novelty and stability (an upcoming post) and between pleasure and meaning. Some of the exploration of the latter is presented here.

“In scientific circles, the topic of happiness is super hot and equally divisive. On the one hand is a long tradition of researchers who have studied what is known as hedonia – the belief that one is getting the important things one wants, as well as certin pleasant affects that normally go along with this belief. Hedonia is that sense of well-being you get on seeing the first finishedcopy of your new book, crossing the finish line after running a marathon, after about of great sex, on hearing you’re getting a good pay raise at work, and while enjoying a party where everyone feels comfortable enough to sing, dance, and be silly. Sounds fantastic; sign us up!

“On the other hand are those scientists who have fixated on eudaimonia, a term made famous by Aristotle that translates, essentially, to behaving virtuously and striving toward the full development of our potential. Eudaminoic activity is volunteering time to help somebody else, persevering at a valued goal in the face of obstacles, expressing gratitude to somebody who has been helpful, and striving for excellence in the development and use of one’s talents – whether surfing ocean waves, being honest, or being fully present when someone speaks. Sounds fantastic and profound; sign us up for this, too!

“The point here is that pleasure and meaning work like a seesaw, [like positive and negative emotions do] and it’s important to have both in your life at different times (and occasionally even at the same time.) People often sacrifice short-term pleasure, such a having dessert, or going to a party, in favor of that future-oriented meaning, as in the example of competing in a triathlon or graduating from college. Often when you willingly and temporarily give up pleasure, it is replaced by an activity that sort of sucks: studying for an exam, running on a rainy afternoon, working on a report late into the night. In these cases, you opt for unpleasantness. Although you wouldn’t want them to dominate your life, they do make you stronger, and often lead to more success.

“The trick is to change your basic thinking from what you like to feel to what is functional. You want your life to stand for something important, but you want to enjoy yourself along the way. If you want to envision a person who is whole, imagine that person with one foot rooted in the present, mindfully appreciative of what they have, and another foot reaching toward the future with its undiscovered sources of meaning. So let’s put an end to the struggle between pleasure and meaning. Go ahead, invest in profoundly meaning goals and seek out the ultimate purpose of life, the nature of human existence, and the larger universe that we reside in. At the same time, let pleasure look large in everyday life; enjoy the sensory, social and intellectual delights available to you – as long as there is no mismatch with your deepest values. Instead of succumbing to what you ought to be, allow yourself to become whole ad live well.”


Seduced by the obvious benefits of kindness, compassion, mindfulness, optimism and positivity on our health, social relationships, and work, we often forget the value of uncomfortable states. We’ll never free ourselves to soar in infinite potential if we’re busy trying to avoid the darker parts of ourselves, the aspects we fail to appreciate. To go there you’ll need access to everything in the human psychological knapsack, which means unpacking and integrating previously ignored and underappreciated parts of who you are. By accepting the challenge of drawing on the dark side when it’s most helpful, [by becoming more emotionally, socially and mentally agile] you bring wholeness within reach, perhaps for the first time.

It is the balance of being able to endure phases of negative affect and then engage in a shift to positive affect that is adaptive. Minimization of negative experiences and suppression of negative affect are functional neither for work motivation nor for personal development.

* * * * *

Two types of avoidance cause problems for people: avoiding pleasure and avoiding pain. At first glance, it might be hard to believe that we sometimes want to steer clear of pleasure, but we all know people who can’t enjoy fun because they believe there are better ways to spend time. In this same vein, we can also be afraid that by celebrating happiness, we will jinx it, or fear that celebrating something good – a birthday, a promotion, the perfect cardio kick-boxing class – will focus too much attention on us, thereby turning other people off.

Psychologists call this disqualifying the positive. Unfortunately, by disqualifying positives we lose out on those amazing golden moments that are part of a life well lived. By depriving others of the opportunity to share in our positive emotions, our social relationship become less intimate. When we fail to savor the details of positive events, it becomes more difficult for us to access these memories for a mood boost on a rainy day.

The other form of avoidance, by far the more common, is turning away from so-called negative psychological states, such as anger and anxiety. This sentiment reflects the philosophy of the Hedonists of ancient Greece – the intellectual crosstown rivals of the Stoics – who held the view that the best life is to be found in pleasure. The problem with the hedonistic philosophy is that people can become overly skeptical of anything negative.

This is especially true in modern times, when we advise friends to “find the silver lining,” “turn that frown upside down,” and “buck up.” Essentially, all of these strategies try to talk people out of their negative states. Unfortunately, avoiding problems also means avoiding finding the solutions to those problems.

* * * * *

Avoiding uncomfortable yet useful states keeps us from reaching our full potential. Interestingly this arms-length relationship we have with discomfort is a largely Western – and specifically American – phenomenon. Americans are many things: we are creative, confident, industrious, and well-known for being hopelessly upbeat. Above all, however, we are comfortable. Despite its pockets of desperate poverty and breathtaking disparities in income, the United States is a remarkably orderly, convenient, and comfortable place to live. Our traffic lights work, our cinemas are temperature controlled, bathtubs are as common as garden hoses, everyone has access to shampoo, and we choose our mattresses based on size, material, and softness.

As people become better able to satisfy their desire for comfort, they narrow their range of experiences and fall out of practice navigating life’s hardships. To put this in a linear way: (1) material comforts and convenience items lead to (2) an urge to use external goods to be at ease, which leads to (3) lower psychological immunity to circumstances that are less comfortable and more inconvenient. Make no mistake; material comforts affect our ability to psychologically adjust to our surroundings and to deal with difficulties. The comfort associated with air-conditioning translates, over time, to a situation in which internal states such as anger, doubt, giving up, uncertainty, and mindlessness quickly become overwhelming, or are seen as immoral. It is our uniquely American ease of comfort addiction that splinters us as individuals and prevents us from enjoying the full range of psychological well-being.

The more convenient everything is, the less likely people are to engage in troublesome self-control. Just look at the example of frustration. In places where things get done quickly, people find waiting in lines or in traffic almost intolerable. To put it another way, the more comfortable you life is, the less patient you are likely to be with perceived problems.

* * * * *

Guilt adds to our moral fiber, motivating us to be more socially sensitive and caring citizens than we might be otherwise. Researchers have found that adults prone to feeling guilty were less like to drive drunk, steal, use illegal drugs, or assault another person. If character is reflected in what you do when nobody is looking, then this moral emotional called guilt is one of its building blocks. By ignoring the value of guilt, parents and schools face a bigger uphill climb in cultivated good kids who will ensure the future of a healthy society.

* * * * *

A whole person is one who has both walked with God and wrestled with the devil.
– Carl Jung

Viewing the dark half of human nature in terms of opportunity is a radical, healthy stance. Being whole is about being open and accommodating of all parts to your personality: the light and dark passengers, the strengths and weaknesses, the successes and failures. To this we add the combination of a pleasurable and profoundly meaningful life, and the embrace of both novelty and stability. Acknowledgement of seemingly contradictory aspects of the self willincrease the power and influence you wield in the present, and the vitality, agility, and perseverance you can bring to the life tasks that lie ahead.


Do not create a culture based on the assumption that positivity must reign supreme. Instead, create a culture where everyone knows that it’s safe to be real, and the depending on the situation, it’s sometimes better to feel something other than happiness.

Happiness leads to big-picture thinking (think project managers) and unhappiness leads to detail-oriented, analytical thinking (think detectives). With a happy leader, followers perform 200 percent better on a creative task than they do for an unhappy leader. When the leader displays signs of sadness, followers perform 400 percent better on an analytical task. These numbers are staggering. The change in performance arises from simply watching the leader. This tells us that leaders can tilt other people’s emotions enough to dramatically improve targeted performance goals if, and only if, they understand when happiness and unhappiness are most advantageous. Leaders who intentionally think about the nature of the task being given to someone and the best emotional state for that task get an extra leadership edge.

* * * * *

One study shows that a little anger is a superior strategy when it comes to effectively returning a purchased item. The reasons for this probably change depending on who is having the conversation and the amount of money and time involved. But you can bet that anger works because the other person feels your discomfort. Your anger get them to focus in the here and now on what you have to say, and they recognize that a problem will be highly likely and costly (to their job standing and mental health) if they don’t act reasonably with you. By contrast, others who express disappointment but not anger are easier to brush off as insignificant. When emotions can lead to a better outcome, it’s helpful to focus on what you want to accomplish rather than what you feel.

* * * * *
The Virtues of Throwing in the Towel

In 1995, a Swedish adventurer named GoranKropp set a new standard for extreme among an already superfluous group of Mount Everest climbers. Unlike his high-altitude peers, Kroppwanted to ascend the mountain without the aid of supplemental oxygen, fixed ropes and ladders, Sherpa climbing support, porters for gear, or motorized transportation of any sort. To do this, he embarked on a bicycle journey of more than eight thousand mile between his home in Sweden and Kathmandu. From there, he ferried multiple loads to Everest base camp on his back. From base camp, he blazed a trail through steep rock, ice, and snow before any other expedition. On the day of his summit bid, however, Kropp made the difficult decision to turn around just three hundred feet shy of the highest point on earth. His choice was based on the late-afternoon conditions and the likelihood that he would have to descend cold, fatigued, and in the dark.

Kropp’s amazing feat of self-control, the decision to turn around so close to his goal after having invested so much, turned out to be a prescient choice. A week later, members of several expeditions were afflicted with what can only be called summit fever and were stranded high on Everest’s flanks by severe weather after failing to turn back at the agreed-upon time. The days that followed became known as the 1996 Everest Disaster, a period that claimed eight lives in the deadliest season on the mountain in history. In this context, Kropp’sdecision to turn back was, perhaps, lifesaving. It also throws new light on the commonly held assumption that perseverance is good and that quitting is bad.

One of the major benefits of low moods – those that we would argue are typically uncomfortable for people and which they often try to avoid – is that when we feel them we tend to pull back from our goals. Sadness, frustration, doubt, confusion, and even guilt all serve a similar purpose: they signal you to apply the brakes, to retreat within yourself in order to reflect, and to conserve energy and resources. This is especially important in our human tendency to continue investing in impossible causes, or to act based on sunk costs, instead of making the decision to cut one’s losses when the desired outcome looks less and less likely. Whole people have the ability to approach goals flexibly by continuing to invest when progress occurs at an acceptable pace, and by swapping old goals out for new ones when failure is almost certain.
Wholeness is predicated on a series of skills, all of which are based in psychological flexibility: mental agility, emotional agility, social agility.

1. The Right Way to Get Angry

When you want to express anger, or any negative emotion, one way to do so is to start with what we call the discomfort caveat. Let other people know explicitly that you are experiencing intense emotions and because of this, it is more difficult than usual for you to communicate clearly. Apologize in advance, not for your emotions or your actions, but for the potential lack of clarity in how you convey what you’re about the say. Lead in with a statement such as “I want you to know that I’m feeling uncomfortable right now, which means it’s not the best time for me to be expressing myself. But, under the circumstances, it’s important for me to say…”

The aim of the discomfort caveat is to disarm the person, to keep them from becoming defensive. When someone hears that you are uncomfortable and that the conversation is difficult for you, itincreases the likelihood that they will approach what you have to say with empathy. After using this opening, you can then delve deeper into what bothers you, what you think and feel in the aftermath of whatever happened (why anger emerged instead of other feelings).

Second, slow the situation down. Our initial tendency is to jump into a situation and act immediately, especially in cases where our blood is boiling. Instead, try thinking of anger as coming in both fast and slow varieties, when you want to scream versus when you want to motivate a person in a calculated way. When you’re angry, give yourself permission to pause for a moment, even if someone is standing there awaiting a response. You can even let them know that you are intentionally slowing the situation down. Choose to make good decisions rather than fast ones. When you’re angry, pauses, deep breaths, and moments of reflection more effectively exercise power and control than rapid-fire responses. If you feel less angry when you slow down, great, but that’s not the goal. This is about giving yourself a wider range of options to choose from in an emotionally charged situation.
2. How to Escape the Shame Trap

a. Keep the goal in mind. One common mistake in dealing with a guilty party is jumping straight into a personal attack. It’s easy to quickly and even unconsciously conflate guilt with an absence of values, with stupidity, with greed,or any number of other character flaws. The problem is that nobody wants to be told they are bad. People are more open to being told that they have done something bad. You are more likely to get the point across if you reinforce the personals strengths and virtues (only if you see them, don’t make them up) but still hold them accountable for their actions.

b. Start by establishing common ground. If someone did something wrong, show them, where possible, that you share their values and goals. Then point out how their behavior moves them away from those values and how alternative, healthier behaviors are more aligned with who they are. Another place to find common ground is by sharing your discomfort. These conversations are difficult, and sometimes it feels as if it would be easier to let bad behavior slide. It is typically just as uncomfortable for the person wagging a scolding finger as it is for the person squirming in regret about their misdeeds. If your want the feedback to stick and improve someone’s future, be honest up front about how the conversation makes you uncomfortable.

C Instead of trying to control others, offer autonomy. Contrary to popular thought, people don’t mind being told what to do. Consider that you gladly take out the trash when asked, you turn in reports when deadlines loom, and when family members ask for something at the grocery store, you add it to your list. What people do mind is being told how to do something. No one wants advice on how to correctly replace a garbage bag, how to format a report they have been working on for weeks, or how to compare prices at the local Safeway. Scientists who study human motivation now know that one of our basic needs, right up there with physical survival, is thedesire to direct our own life. When confronting a guilty party, do not give instructions about that they should do in the future. Instead, give them autonomy to cope up with helpful modifications they can make. The aftermath of wrongdoing leads to the best outcomes when the plan to improve behavior is viewed as a collaborative, creative process between the perpetrator and victim.


The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self – Not Just Your “Good” Self – Drives Success and Fulfillment by Todd Kashdan, Ph.D. and Robert Biswas-Diener, Dr. Philos. Hudson Street Press, 2014.

Easy to read and digest, the research readable and relevant, examples and stories that ring true – a real treasure.




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