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The positive value of the negative experience

By Martin Challis - posted Thursday, 7 April 2005

Sometimes we have a tendency to weigh ourselves down with a negative attitude to a negative experience. It is understandable that we try and avoid negative experiences: they can range from anything unpleasant to something catastrophic and emotional and physical pain sends us a single clear message - this experience is not good.

And sure enough, the part of our mind that tells us this is so - is correct (to a point). It might however, be more helpful to the mind as it deals with a negative memory, if we transpose the fixity of “not good” or “bad” to the changeability of “not enjoyable” as this will help the mind release the negative charge that works to sustain the impediment.

If the mind holds on to “not good” or “bad” then the memory of the experience is charged with negative energy. Negative, not in the sense of how atoms are charged, but in the sense of not useful. Not useful to growth and change. Negative energy or negative emotion is not useful to us when it is held as a state of constant suffering. The positive value of the negative experience comes when it propels an act of change, an act of kindness or an act of reconstruction. Positive is taken to mean, that which is beneficial and useful to growth, and wherever change is constructive.


Without negative experiences, essentially we would not grow - there would be no hunger to learn. Why would we change anything (except perhaps out of boredom or curiosity) if everything were comfortable and enjoyable? In life the certainty of our physical body’s death is a constant reminder that we can hold on to nothing physical. But in the mental body we see that no matter how much is taken away (short of unconsciousness or delusion) we can choose to hold the memories of our experiences in either a positive or negative light.

It is one thing to hold the positive experience in a positive light and another thing altogether to move a negative experience into a positive light. So we should ask the question: is it possible to retrain our mind to do so?

I want to speak of my friend Tim. Tim is a living example of this retraining, he is a close friend and a constant inspiration to me. Tim’s early life from the age of 5 to 15 involved serial child abuse and torture. He entered the army at the age of 18 and at that time at age 23 was the youngest ever recruit of the elite Special Air Service Regiment in the Australian Army. Tim discovered on leaving the army eight years later that he suffered from several mental disorders including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Dissociative Disorder. In the time since leaving the Army Tim has been focused on his recovery, not only from the various conditions he had suffered but also from drug and alcohol addiction. In short, if anyone ever had an excuse to hold to a set of negative experiences sentencing him to a miserable life, it would be Tim.

On the contrary, Tim’s mission has been to charge all his negative experiences with a positive value. He does this, not so he can forget these experiences but to recover and continue to grow. He works diligently on this process, he has committed himself to writing his experiences, to ongoing sessions with health professionals, to abstinence of harmful substances, to public speaking and inspirational work with others recovering from similar experiences.

As Tim has discovered, holding a negative charge to the negative experience is not useful to growth and change because it perpetuates the condition and implies that things cannot change. The negative charge to the negative experience maintains suffering, stasis and an endless loop of perpetual defeat. For Tim to benefit from painful past experiences he has not tried to bury the memory or deny the flow of emotion that spills with each recollection. Through his work with various professionals he has channelled these emotions and recollections into a re-purposed awareness. He has processed and continues to process past experiences by practicing acceptance and would you believe, thankfulness.

Today Tim is thankful for all that he is and all he is able to give. His past experiences have helped form the dynamic person he is today. Tim is one of the most beautiful and inspirational people I have ever been blessed to know. His gift to me and his gift to us all is his living example of the knowledge that it is possible to bathe the negative experience with a positive value. And I have been motivated to ask this question: Is it possible that by embracing the positive value of the negative experience we might discover a propelling force to personal re-construction and possibly a getting of wisdom?

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About the Author

Martin Challis has a wealth of experience in communication and performance management. Drawing on a dynamic and diverse background in business, education and the arts he engages his creativity and enthusiasm to create learning environments that instil lasting and meaningful change. Martin has a depth of experience in training and facilitation in the corporate and education sectors.

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