I have been meaning to write a new blogpost for months now, but due to the demands of my clinical psychology course I have been struggling to find the time. The evidence for my plea that this course seems to have taken over my life is clearly illustrated by the fact that even this blogpost has a psychology-related theme to it. It also, however, mentions Harry Potter and Wodehouse, so all is not lost just yet.
In case any of you have eyed the title of this post with scepticism and are concerned that it will in some way be celebrating the “power” of positive thinking, let me reassure you that this is absolutely not the case. I am a confirmed cynic when it comes to affirmations, mantras and “inspirational” quotes – and feel vindicated by studies like this, which demonstrate that positive thinking can actually be harmful rather than beneficial. But why should positive thinking be harmful? Why can’t we just wish our negative thoughts and feelings away? If it doesn’t work, how do we know if we’re just not wishing hard enough?
Having recently learned about emotion-focused therapy in one of my clinical psychology classes, I became interested in the concept of emotion transformation. This is the idea that in order to overcome a maladaptive emotion, it must be replaced with a more adaptive one. “Maladaptive” in this sense means unhelpful or not useful. Examples of maladaptive emotions: fear, shame, guilt etc. These emotions can lead to us feeling stuck and unable to move forward with our lives. Adaptive emotions, on the other hand, are those that help you to process the experience and move on: joy, humour, forgiveness – even anger, in certain cases. Leslie Greenberg (one of the founders of emotion-focused therapy) says that the philosopher Spinoza was the first person to point out that in order to change an emotion, it must be replaced with another emotion (Greenberg, 2002). In other words, all the rationalization and positive thinking in the world will not help you change your maladaptive emotion unless there is a stronger, more powerful emotion to take its place. Thoughts cannot change our emotions – only emotions have the power to transform other emotions.
Greenberg incorporates this idea into the theoretical orientation behind emotion-focused therapy. I won’t go into detail about this here because I don’t suppose it would be particularly interesting to anyone who isn’t studying psychology, but if you want to learn more about emotion-focused therapy and how it works, check out the article in the references section at the end of this post.
While transforming negative emotions may seem at first a purely psychological concept, it occurred to me, even as I read the article, that I had seen examples of this kind of emotional transformation before, in literature. Any of my readers who are Wodehouse fans will no doubt have spotted the Spinoza reference above. I have no idea whether Wodehouse actually read any Spinoza, so the fact that Jeeves uses the theory of emotional transformation to help out Bertie and his friends on several occasions may be a complete coincidence – I suspect it is.
Let me use a quote from Greenberg’s article and a quote from Wodehouse (“The Code of the Woosters”) to illustrate my thoughts on this.
“Thus in therapy, maladaptive fear, once aroused, can be changed by the more boundary-establishing emotions of adaptive anger or disgust, or by evoking the softer feelings of compassion or forgiveness.” ~ Greenberg
“Well, as I say, I went to Jeeves, and put the facts before him… He approached the problem from the psychological angle. In the final analysis, he said, disinclination to speak in public is due to fear of one’s audience…We do not, he said, fear those whom we despise. The thing to do therefore, is to cultivate a lofty contempt for those who will be listening to one…You fill your minds with scornful thoughts about them.” ~ The Code of the Woosters
And there you have it. Gussie Fink-Nottle’s fear of Roderick Spode and Sir Watkyn Bassett is turned into contempt and dislike and he is able to view the prospect of making a speech in front of them with no qualms whatsoever. Jeeves really does know all about the psychology of the individual!
For those among you who have not yet read Wodehouse, I set forth another example – well, two, in fact, from a book series that is so popular, I have no doubt that everyone will be familiar with it. In the third Harry Potter book, Harry has to cope with several new challenges that are of a somewhat darker nature than those he has encountered in his first two years at Hogwarts. As well as trying to solve the usual mystery and intrigue, Harry also has to try to overcome his own fear, as illustrated by his encounters with Boggarts and Dementors. In the first case, Professor Lupin shows Harry and the rest of his class how to beat a Boggart – a creature that turns into the object or person that you most fear and can only be defeated by laughter. This is a perfect example of transforming the maladaptive emotion of fear into a more adaptive one – humour.
“Nobody knows what a boggart looks like when he is alone, but when I let him out, he will immediately become whatever each of us most fears…The charm that repels a boggart is simple, but in requires force of mind. You see, the thing that really finishes a boggart is laughter. What you need to do is to force it to assume a shape that you find amusing.” ~ Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Of course, when Neville Longbottom is forced to confront his greatest fear (Professor Snape), he manages to overcome his terror by imagining Snape wearing his grandmother’s eccentric and old-fashioned clothes, thus providing considerable amusement for the rest of the class, as well as himself.
The final example I shall mention is also taken from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In this book, Harry encounters Dementors for the first time – dark, soulless creatures who prey on human emotions by sucking all the happiness and hope out of anyone that comes near them. The negative emotions associated with them are fear and despair – both of which are obviously maladaptive. As with the Boggart, the way to defeat a Dementor is to summon up the opposite of despair – a powerful, happy memory:
“‘The Patronus is a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the Dementor feeds upon – hope, happiness, the desire to survive – but it cannot feel despair, as real humans can, so the Dementors can’t hurt it….’
…‘And how do you conjure it?’
‘With an incantation, which will work only if you are concentrating, with all your might, on a single, very happy memory.’” ~Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Here again, we see that a powerful, positive emotion is used to displace a negative, maladaptive one. Even though Harry has to think of a memory in order to overcome his fear, it is the emotion attached to that memory, rather than the thought itself, that is the key to his success.
The musings that prompted this post have definitely helped me understand the theory of emotion-focused therapy a little better and I hope it might have entertained you as well. As much as I like studying psychology, it definitely adds to that enjoyment when I can also link it to my favourite books!
Greenberg, L. (2002). Integrating an Emotion-Focused Approach to Treatment Into Psychotherapy Integration. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 12(2), 154-189.
Rowling, J. K. (1999). Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Wodehouse, P. G. (1938). The Code of the Woosters.