The Power of Negative Thinking

“At school, nobody seemed to like me, which allowed me a lot of free time to wander around in my own head. When you’re in pain, you need a release - for me it was writing and drawing.” - Tim Burton, Artist & Director 

Years ago, I went to an exhibition of work by Tim Burton. I cherish his films with Beetlejuice being a film my girlfriend and I saw three times the month it was released. We were enamored by his style, humor, and the darkness of the landscapes he created. So, I expected to see that reflected in the exhibit.

However, the work that was presented was a collection of drawings and paintings that Burton had done throughout his career. They recalled the works of Edward Gorey and Charles Addams, but were fully unique on their own. Intimately detailed linework and delicately laid color applications gave his tormented visions a sense of love, care, and passion I had not expected.

His own recounting of a negative, outcast upbringing led him to find a world where he could explore the beauty in his heart and spirit, while channeling the negative thinking and emotions that surrounded him in the social world of school and community. He created an unparalleled vision that was bizarre, yet wonderful; twisted, yet made perfect sense; cacophonic but still harmonious; repulsive, yet beautiful. 

But looking closely at the disparate works of Burton, Gorey, or Addams, it’s evident that these artists were expressing their unique senses of humor, yet channeled their own deep, negative thoughts, likely drawn from experiences in their life. Themes of revenge, torture, cruelty, pain, and violence commingle, intricately, with their incredible skills as artists to purge their negativity to create memorable works that continue to be met with humor and positive reception.

It’s not new for artists or writers to leverage negative thinking in order to produce work that communicates to a broad audience. Poet, Sylvia Plath, was able to craft words in such a relatable way, that even those who couldn’t share in her exact experience, could understand the pain she suffered due to clinical depression. Though she ended her life abruptly, the work she left behind was forged from negativity, yet continues to be a positive inspiration and reference for many.

Roald Dahl is best known for Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, much of his children’s literature is can be perceived as deeply disturbing, dark, cruel, and macabre, putting children in terrifying adversarial situations against their parents or other adults. Beatrix Potter, whose tales of Peter Rabbit were rendered with such precision and detail, were also filled with scenarios of great peril, anxiety, and fear. And in Milne’s, Winnie the Pooh, when Pooh became stuck in the rabbit hole, I became fearful, as a child, that I might become stuck someday, too! 

We all hear it said, time and time again, from school to work, “you need to maintain a positive attitude,” “look at the bright side of life,” and “embrace the power of positive thinking.” While I, too, subscribe to the power that can be attained through positive thinking, I also look toward the philosophy of the Yin Yang which promotes an equal balance of light/dark and positivity/negativity in Nature.

But, we are creatures of emotions which range in strengths from person to person. What you may feel about something might greatly differ from that of someone else. Still, the power of emotions can be both overwhelming and wonderful, to caustic and even dangerous, depending on how they are managed.

Positive emotions, like joy and happiness keep a bounce in our step. They promote health within us and a good, general sense of well-being. Negative emotions are the opposite, and act to dismantle the good feelings. We often repress the negative emotions and thinking, making a choice not to address them or to keep them at a distance to be dealt with later. The problem is, that later may often be too late and emotions like anger can bubble up and cause us to lash out at others or do things we regret, after. Repressed sadness can lead to depression, to the point where medical assistance may be required.

In my own experiences, as I’m no expert in the fields of psychology or emotions, I have learned and have been teaching the importance of not repressing negative thinking and emotions, but expressing them, instead. And don’t get me wrong, I still get caught up in my own whirlwind of negativity when it comes lurking.

Being able to recognize and access negative thinking and emotions is an incredible way of taking hold of undesirable feelings and purging them through expression, in a positive, creative way, instead of repressing.

For more information on the subjects of human emotions and the research done in that field, I recommend looking into the work of American psychologist, Paul Ekman, who devoted his career to identifying hundreds of facial expressions and relating them to emotions and pioneering and defined the six primary emotions that humans experience:

  • Anger, Disgust. Fear, Happiness, Sadness, and Surprise

Another is Prof. Robert Plutchik, who studied the emotions connected with violence, depression, and suicide and the process of psychotherapy. He defined the four pairs of contrasting emotions:

  • Joy - Sadness // Anger - Fear // Trust - Distrust // Surprise - Anticipation

For me, the emotions that typically drive negative thinking are:

ANGER: The mind’s call to urgent reaction.

“And when you lose control, you’ll reap the harvest you have sown.” - Pink Floyd, “Dogs” 

Anger, the unstoppable nuclear reactor within us, always at risk of melting down when hostile emotions surface. If not expressed, anger can be destructive, which may generate shame, guilt, or sadness later. 

But anger gets a bad reputation! When recognized as the force that drives us to respond to situations that put us in concernible, challenging, or even dangerous situations, we realize that anger is our body guard against getting hurt or even taken advantage of.

And when embraced, anger can be used to fuel passion, incite us to create, or drive our competitive spirit. Often, when anger is expressed, it eventually leads us to a contemplative, calm state of reflection.

FEAR: Keeps us inside a moving car or standing to close to the edge of a cliff.

“Paranoia strikes deep. Into your life it will creep. It starts when you’re always afraid. Step out of line, the men come and take you away!” - Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth” 

Fear projects the worst possible scenarios to our minds, to keep us from potentially dangerous or threatening situations, challenging our fight or flight mentality. Some fears are dismissable, like fear of the dark or fear of thunder. Other fear, however, can cascade into catastrophic, negative thinking like when losing a child in a shopping mall or the smell of smoke when you’re sleeping. 

Yet, there are still deeper, more inexplicable fears that debilitate and persist in our subconscious, raising anxiety, despair, and depression. While some fears are overcome by turning on the lights, locating the lost child, or simply breathing and calming oneself, others may require medical or professional evaluation. 

Like anger, fear can also be leveraged. The fear after my company shut down and left a hundred people out of jobs, stuck me with panic and anxiety, as I was not prepared. My website and portfolio were outdated and I had no idea where to look for a new job. But once I confronted my fears, expressing them in writing and to those around me, I was soon able to address my website and portfolio, finding the courage to get back out and start again. Fear can be a great inspiration for musicians, writers, and artists to draw from.

DISGUST: Keeping our egos in check.

“Evil in my head inside this private hell, I’m not feeling very well! Frustration, disgust, aggravation, disgust, mental hell!” - The Ramones, “Mental Hell” 

The smell of a full garbage can in the summertime. Stepping on something squishy in bare feet at the beach. Seeing someone gluttonously devour food, spraying it from their mouth. These are all disgust-worthy scenarios, but not really the kind worth discussing. The disgust I’m talking about is when we say, “I’m so disgusted with myself,” over some destructive, self-image ideal that we’ve placed on ourselves.

Looking in the mirror and seeing an overweight version of oneself can cause disgust. Accidentally giving a cashier a hundred dollar bill instead of a single, and walking away. Or making a mistake or poor decision.

Disgust feeds off our ego and our vulnerability and can lead to self-loathing, shame, sadness, and depression.

But again, repressing your disgust in having weight issues, then eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s only serves to exacerbate the negative thinking and heighten the emotional sensitivity.

Expressing disgust through exercise to deal with weight concerns, self-forgiveness for mistakes or bad decisions, or simply by avoiding things that make us feel disgusted, like video games, fried food, or being lazy.

I find that keeping lists in a journal of things that I aspire to in order to live better is a huge help. And, for me, once I draft that list, I draw little pictures around each item to bring a positive sense of levity.

SADNESS: Clarify, simplify, and identify the details in our life. 

“It’s so sad to watch a sweet thing die.” - The Beach Boys, “Caroline, No” 

Sadness is the transient bridge between grief and depression. It works to stop the brain and the body from moving, forcing us to reflect. 

 Its triggers vary widely, but overall, the best thing that sadness gives us is pause. The ability to breath, slow down, smell the air, and focus, intensely, on the tiny details in our life that we often miss when we’re happy and joyous. 

When I’m sad, my drawings are smaller and more intimate. My songs are softer and slower. My interactions are brief and extraverted. I become reflective, purging negative thoughts and emotions, like changing a filter full of dust or gunk. Sadness is a tough challenge, but it’s also an opportunity to take hold of those little details and record them for later, whether in words, photographs, drawings, song, or just in expression and memory. 

The Orange Grower’s Son

SURPRISE: A fire under our chair to jolt us into awareness. 

No matter what the “surprise” trigger, be it positive or negative, the result is always a snap awakening to an external situation that causes a range of emotions from joy and pleasure, to sadness and fear, and even disgust. It can take a lifetime of experience to be immune from certain surprises, like a nurse in an emergency room, a soldier in the field of duty, or a teacher in a classroom. 

The old, “seen it all before” helps limit reaction to familiar or routines, situations, and scenarios. Someone inexperienced in those situations might react with panic, dismay, or fear and not understand how to handle it. People are often surprised to learn that throwing water on a grease fire only makes it worse, where as snuffing it out with a towel will douse the flames. 

Using surprise to our advantage means simply being prepared for any and all possible scenarios and turning it into “anticipation,” expecting specific results instead of being unprepared for them. As a graphic artist, I’ve seen so many things in my field that I always try to prepare for whatever may come. Incorrect images sent to a vendor, font files corrupting and throwing a whole document off, software and computer crashes, or color plates being off causing separations to go wonky. I’ve tried to limit unfamiliar and unexpected scenarios, so I’m not surprised when something bad - or even good - happens. 

JEALOUSY: The pushy cousin of anger.

“I’ve tried to see your point of view, but could not hear or see for jealousy.” - The Pet Shop Boys, “Jealousy”

Jealousy exists to get a reaction out of us. To take action, but not as aggressively as anger. It works fast and usually not with good intent. It stirs comparison and feeds disgust. 

Jealousy gets us to trample the good we have and covet what we don’t have. It’s a baby wanting another baby’s bottle. It drives hasty decisions that can lead to anger, fear, sadness, and even shocking surprise.

The only way to manage the negative thinking brought on by jealousy is to simply allow the baby to have the bottle. To let jealousy run its course, but without action or interference that can disrupt us.

A neighbor gets a really nice car. My jealousy kicks in. I may want to say, “yeah, but he looks silly driving it,” but instead, I catch myself and state the fact, “wow, that IS a really nice car!” thus, keeping my emotions in check.

And like other emotions, expressing them is the best way to get rid of them.

For me, I find that jealousy stirs my competitive nature. It drives me to work harder and focus more than I had before I became jealous. This happened recently when I saw an illustrator’s annual magazine at the book store, filled with gorgeous illustrations from hundreds of artists. My competitive jealousy kicked in and it drove me to review a current project and make it better, stronger, and more appealing than it was prior.

So, in closing out this entry, I hope you found that with keeping to the power of positive thinking, it’s also important to recognize and understand the power of negative thinking, as well, and how - when managed - it can be used to our advantage in producing positive, creative results.

Thank you so much for taking your time to read. Cheers and God bless!