Category: Emotional Intelligence

Light and Shade

Author: Geoff Nicholson

I was talking to someone last week (not a client by the way) and they described themselves as feeling overwhelmed, down and having “lost their mojo”. Due to logistical constraints this was not discussed further at the time, but I have been thinking about it a lot since then.

As someone who has very recently undergone a massive career transformation, I am well used to experiencing similar emotions, and have tried numerous ways to deal with them. To say they have all been successful would be blatantly untrue!

What I was wondering is this: why do we feel that it is not OK to feel this way? Why do we feel that positive emotions and feelings are good and should be celebrated (posted on LinkedIn?!); yet their darker, more challenging counterparts should be hidden away and brooded upon in private?

I have no intention of delving into the recesses of psychological conditioning and behaviour within the family, workplace and society in general – but I would like to share some of my reflections on this subject.

I love music. I especially enjoy listening to longer passages – entire albums (remember those?), long tracks or symphonic works by “Classical” composers. Are concept albums still a thing? I digress. Anyway, can you imagine listening to an album (or playlist) where all the tracks are essentially similar? All the same tempo, same key, similar lyrics, same drum patterns, etc? Would that be a fulfilling experience? Well, not to me – although, to be fair, there are times when that type of similarity would be desirable (parties, for example). But generally speaking, what makes listening to music so enjoyable are the differences. The slow songs that provide contrast to the dance numbers. The ballads that tug at our heart strings, before the stadium anthem that awes us with its power and energy. It’s all about contrast.

I play in a band, and I generally plan the setlists for live performances. Despite what people might think, this is not a random process. Start and end with your best songs. Hit the audience hard and leave them with a great tune that they will sing or whistle as they leave (or go to the loo at half- time). But in between, slow things down. Reduce the pace and play a few mid-tempo or even slow songs in the middle, before building back up to that crescendo. You have their attention, use it.

Composers have been using this type of formula for centuries – the overture which is often bombastic and sets the tone – grabbing the listener’s attention from the start. The next movement will often be fast-paced but melodic – introducing further themes, melodies and harmonies. Then, just as everything is getting a bit predictable, comes the adagio section. The slow, and often dark and moody part that uses a lot of minor keys (the black notes on a piano). D minor, the saddest of all keys perhaps? A contemplative interlude that brings pause for thought and anticipation of what is to come, introducing some tension…. It may not be a very long section, but its importance is enormous. What comes after is almost always lively, pacey and “happy” (mostly major keys now). The appreciation of the faster section is enhanced by the slower, darker section before. The tension has now been released.

This is commonly used in all the arts. In stories, books, movies and even in adverts (look for the Nolan’s Cheddar Seriously Strong ad on YouTube). Why? Because we know it works! Remember how you felt when Dumbo was taken away from his mother? We all knew that the happy ending would ensue, but that doesn’t remove the power of the upsetting plot twist. One accentuates the other. So many stories use this format. Insert your own favourite here.

Music, film, stories, books, setlists. Ups and downs. Light and shade. Contrasts. Twists and turns. Tension/release. Overture, allegro, adagio, finale. So many examples.

Yet when it comes to our own emotions and feelings, we shy away from the dark side. We pretend everything is OK, even when it hurts us to do so. We bury stuff away, depriving it of oxygen so that it will suffocate and die. But does it? By keeping dark feelings in the dark, can we actually empower them further?

Why not try a different approach? Instead of hiding away from these feelings, embrace them. Revel in them. Even wallow in them! By meeting them head on, we can perhaps rob them of a lot of their power. Worth a try?

I would like to add an important caveat at this point. I am not a psychologist. I would not suggest for a moment that anyone suffering from a metal health condition (whether diagnosed or not) should try this approach. If in doubt, check it out.