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The Art of Negative Capability

While attending a workshop recently, I learned about something called negative capability. Have you heard of this? The phrase was coined by poet John Keats to describe a writer’s ability to disregard the need for rational explanations, to be content with the mysteries and doubts contained in their works.

When we take it out of fiction writing and define negative capability under the umbrella of psychology, it refers to an individual’s ability to tolerate doubt, uncertainties, and the unknown future. When we are skilled in negative capability, we are able to sit with disappointment without rushing to fix the situation, jumping to conclusions, and seeking quick and easy answers. We can tolerate the frustration because we have faith that a solution will present itself in time.

As I sat at the workshop taking notes on this concept, it dawned on me… I’m actually super good at negative capability! I never knew! Here I was going through life thinking my mentality of “offer it up” and “it’s out of my control” and “it’ll be fine” was a major weakness. Turns out it’s a strength! A skill, even!

Now you might be wondering how this is a good thing, because it sounds a little bit like apathy – and that’s not exactly a skill. But stay with me!

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m not a planner. I do not dwell on the future. I don’t know what I’m doing next summer, and don’t even think about asking me where I see myself in five years. I can control many things in my life, and so, to a certain extent, I’m sure I have some control of parts of my future. But there’s so much happening right now! I’d rather put my energy toward controlling that stuff, figuring out this current life. My middle name might as well be “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” as often as I say it. This mentality has helped my anxiety tremendously. If I allow myself to live in the present moment, one day at a time, the future doesn’t seem so daunting.

If you would like to work on your negative capability skills, try some of these easy strategies:

  1. Identify your “circle of control.” One way to do this is to make a list of everything you’re currently worried about. Then, go back and circle the concerns that you have direct control over. (Remember, you cannot control other people’s actions, thoughts, or attitudes.) Once you identify the things you can actually control, you’ll know where to put your energy.
  2. Practice mindfulness. You can find one of my favorite mindfulness exercises here.
  3. Read mystery novels (without skipping to the end!) and watch suspenseful shows or movies. This might sound silly, but indulging in suspenseful fiction can train our brain to be okay with uncertainty.

Molly Woodman, Outreach Coordinator for The Kim Foundation

Molly Woodman is one of the Outreach Coordinators at The Kim Foundation. Born and raised in Omaha, she earned her bachelor’s degree in communications from UNO. Molly spent fourteen years as the Director of Admissions and Recruitment at an area private high school. Her passion for public speaking and mental health advocacy led her to The Kim Foundation in August of 2022. Molly manages the foundation’s social media accounts, sits on the steering committee for the Metro Area Suicide Prevention Coalition, and provides mental health awareness and suicide prevention education to the community through the Voice for Hope and Healing presentations.