“Don’t worry, be happy!”

“Stay positive!”

“Don’t be nervous/sad/upset/frustrated/etc.!”

Throughout our lives, we are told in many ways – both explicitly, and often, more subtly – that we ought to maintain a positive, upbeat attitude. That winners engage in positive thinking, and our success is dependent on our ability to avoiding being so negative.

And while there is certainly much to be said for positivity, sometimes it can be awfully exhausting to keep it up.

Because on occasion, we do experience things in life that are disappointing, discouraging, or frustrating. Sometimes we just feel kind of blah for no apparent reason. And when life throws us curveballs, most of us do have moments of pessimism, doubt, and maybe even panic.

How bad is it for us to let negative thoughts or emotions like this into our lives? Is this like the worst mental habit ever? Are we setting ourselves up for failure by not maintaining better mental hygiene?

How do you approach negative thoughts and emotions?

A team of researchers conducted surveys with over 1000 undergraduate students, curious to see how their approach to negative thoughts and emotions plays out in their lives.

They were asked to respond to questions like “I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way that I’m feeling” (where 1=never or very rarely true and 5=very often or always true) and also asked to complete measures of psychological well-being, life satisfaction, depression, and anxiety.

Acceptance

The results might seem a little paradoxical at first, but the researchers found that being more accepting of negative thoughts and emotions was actually associated with greater well-being and satisfaction with life. And fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety as well.

Yep, that’s right – the more ok they were with experiencing negative thoughts and emotions, the less mental stress they experienced.

Which actually makes sense when you think about it. And may not have been as difficult as it sounds, because their acceptance of mental experiences was unrelated to their acceptance of situations.

Emotional experience vs. situation

In other words, it’s perfectly ok to feel let down after a disappointing audition or performance. That’s natural and expected, and it’s not going to help much to tell yourself that you’re weak for not bouncing back faster.

But accepting how you feel is a very different thing than accepting the performance.

Which sounds like a really important distinction. Because you can totally make changes in your preparation and do something about how you played.

But how we feel about something is a little trickier to control. I mean, if your 5-year old is scared of water and doesn’t want to jump off the diving board, you wouldn’t use anger or guilt or shame in an attempt to get them to stop feeling fear, right? Because that would just produce a whole cocktail of other emotions on top of the fear.

Negative emotions and performance

Which takes us to one of the team’s follow-up studies. In which 156 participants were asked to complete a stressful public speaking task, and given a variety of assessments to see if their findings about emotional acceptance might also relate to performance tasks.

They were asked to give a videorecorded speech on why their communication skills qualify them for a job they’ve applied for, which they were told would be evaluated by judges trained to critically evaluate both verbal and non-verbal communication1.

Acceptance, once again

As you can imagine, these poor unsuspecting study participants did get stressed out by this unexpected request.

But just as in the first study, those who were higher in emotional acceptance experienced fewer negative emotions during their speaking performance.

So it seems these folks were less distressed, because they were ok with feeling whatever nerves or anxiety the situation prompted. Which seems to be consistent with this study about the performance benefits of accepting our physiological reaction to stress rather than fighting it. And this TED talk on how our beliefs about stress affects our response to it.

The anxiety double whammy

Unfortunately, some of us have internalized the notion that being nervous is a no-no. That we shouldn’t feel this way, and if we still do after having practiced diligently, it means we may not be cut out for performing.

Which unfortunately, only results in a kind of double whammy. Where we not only feel the nerves, but a whole layer of other crappy, uncomfortable stuff on top. Which makes an already challenging performance even more difficult, leading to subpar playing that seemingly confirms this notion that we don’t have what it takes.

A little like farting in a crowded elevator. Yes, there is the matter of the stinkiness – but that’s over and done with pretty quickly. It’s the associated experience of embarrassment that’s really unpleasant and tends to stay with us long after the fumes have dissipated…

Takeaways

So yes, a positive mindset is certainly an asset, but if you’re having a bad day and feeling pessimistic, it sounds like it’s also important to give yourself permission to let it be and let it pass. Because feeling guilty about being angry, or angry about feeling guilty, or disappointed about feeling disappointed just multiplies negativity.

Perhaps this is a good week to practice giving ourselves (and our students) permission to feel apprehensive or slightly queasy about an upcoming performance. And to be wary about offering well-intentioned advice like “Don’t be nervous” or “There’s nothing to be nervous about,” which could be interpreted to mean “Being nervous is bad.”

After all, we have only so much brainpower available at any given time. It’s no fun if we spend the entire performance being so preoccupied with fighting an internal battle with our nerves, or telling ourselves that we shouldn’t be nervous, that we get to the end of a performance and realize we never got a chance to really say any of the things we wanted to in our playing.

Footnotes

  1. These were their exact instructions: “You will now have to deliver a three minute speech for a job application. You should imagine that you have applied for a position and were invited by that institution (Corporation, School, or Department) to describe how your communication skills, both verbal and written, qualify you for this job. You will have two minutes to prepare your speech. Please prepare without taking any notes. This speech will be filmed and voice recorded. Later, four judges will take notes regarding the manner, content, and quality of the speech. Judges are trained in behavioral observation, and your nonverbal behavior and body language will be accordingly documented.”