Archive for January, 2024

In Defense of “Negative” Emotions

The messages we receive throughout our lives regarding certain emotions are pretty clear: The ones that cause pain or discomfort are not normal, and we should do whatever we can to feel more good, and less bad, as often as possible. We call these uncomfortable emotions “negative,” as opposed to the much preferred “positive” emotions such as happiness, contentment, excitement, and enthusiasm. 

But what if we actually need the entire range of emotions – the good, the bad, and the ugly – to live a full and meaningful life? What if the emotions we label as “negative” aren’t actually emotions we should be trying to get rid of, but rather, emotions we should be listening to and learning from? What if we stopped thinking of them as “negative” altogether, but instead thought of them as problem-signaling emotions? 

Negative Emotions’ Negative Reputation

It’s pretty easy to understand how most of us ended up with such a negative opinion of uncomfortable emotions. For example, many of us grew up in families in which expressing sadness or disappointment was often met with a lecture about how no one likes a complainer, or how much better you have it than other kids, and therefore you should be grateful, not sad. We learned that these were not emotions that “good kids” expressed. Many of us also came to associate anger with violence and/or punishment; in other words, we learned that nothing good comes from the expression of anger, so best to just stuff it down. In addition, many societies (including here in the United States) only tolerate the expression of emotions like anger, frustration or sadness in certain situations or from certain people, depending on your race, gender, and so forth.

And then we have the medical model and how it has influenced the way we think about emotions. As mental health providers, we are required to document our client’s “symptoms” during each session, and many of these symptoms are, in fact, emotions, such as sadness, loneliness, irritability, frequent worry, and guilt. To be clear, therapists aren’t supposed to diagnose anyone with a mood disorder simply because they are experiencing one or more of these emotions. Nonetheless, it is hard not to think of these emotions as pathological when we routinely make note of them as “current symptoms,” with the explicit goal of helping our clients get rid of them.  

So why am I arguing that these emotions are mislabeled as negative? I mean, no one wants to feel sadness, hurt, guilt, anxiety, irritability or anger…right? These emotions can be deeply uncomfortable, and they never feel positive. They can even feel overwhelming, as though they may consume us if we don’t fight them off as quickly as possible. How on earth, then, are we supposed to think of them as anything other than unwanted and potentially destructive emotional states we should try to overcome as quickly as possible? 

Wired To Be Negative

Believe it or not, the human brain is wired for negativity. From birth, we attend and respond to negative “stimuli” more than positive ones. That’s why a baby cries within seconds of being born, but doesn’t smile or laugh for at least six more weeks. Negative emotions are essential tools for survival; they are designed to alert us and our caregivers that something is wrong. These feelings are uncomfortable on purpose because that discomfort motivates us to identify the problem(s) and take action, in order to make the discomfort go away. But if we immediately rush into the getting-back-to-comfortable part, without first listening to what the emotions are trying to communicate, we aren’t able to solve whatever problem those emotions are trying to alert us to. We treat the uncomfortable emotions themselves as the problem, rather than whatever is causing them in the first place. 

Think of the smoke detectors in your home. They are designed to make an intentionally horrible, shrill beeping sound if they detect smoke, because smoke might mean there’s a fire, which in turn could cause serious damage to your home and everyone in it. If, every time the smoke detector went off, you immediately went about removing the batteries so that it would stop making that awful sound, without first checking to see if there is an actual fire, you can see how that might be problematic. Our “negative” emotions are like that fire alarm. 

Take sadness as an example. Let’s say I notice that for the last week or two, I’ve been feeling sadder than usual, with low energy and a strong desire to stay in bed (i.e., the “smoke detector” has gone off). It’s awful and I don’t want to feel this way anymore, so I ask my doctor for a prescription for antidepressants (removing the batteries). But what if the sadness is trying to communicate to me that something is wrong? What if it is trying to let me know that I am not spending enough time with friends or family, or that I am not moving my body enough? Or what if it is alerting me to a vitamin D deficiency, a thyroid problem, or the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder? Maybe I’ve been interpreting things happening in my life in an unnecessarily negative way, without even realizing it, and that is leading to prolonged sadness. In other words, maybe there’s an actual fire, and if I don’t take the time to explore what the emotional smoke alarm is trying to tell me, I might overlook some important information. 

And yes, for some people, their emotional smoke alarm is too sensitive, sounding the alarm at even the slightest hint of an over-browned piece of toast, which means focusing on the alarm itself is a good idea. Antidepressants can alleviate symptoms of depression for many people, and for some, they truly are the best solution. My point is that the smoke alarm can go off for many reasons, from over-browned toast to actual fires, which means identifying the best solution for making it stop requires determining why it’s going off in the first place. 

The same holds true for anger, anxiety, irritability, and most other uncomfortable emotions. These emotions are all trying to signal to us that something is out of whack, and the problem (as well as the solution) may take some investigation. 

How To Listen To Your Emotions In A New Way

Now it’s time to practice cultivating a different kind of relationship with your uncomfortable feelings. Here are a few steps you can take to begin responding to your problem-signaling emotions in a new way: 

  1. Notice your emotions.
    Some of us are so good at suppressing uncomfortable emotions, we get rid of them before we fully realize they were there in the first place. We become disconnected from our emotional experiences. To get a sense of how you typically relate to your emotions, try checking in with yourself about once an hour, for maybe a day or two, and ask yourself how you feel. You can jot it down in a journal or on your phone, log it on a feelings tracker app, or just notice it to yourself and continue on with your day.
  2. Sit with your emotions.
    Next time you notice yourself experiencing an uncomfortable emotion, try pausing in that moment, name the emotion, and then see if you can let yourself feel it. You don’t need to do anything else; just hang with the emotion for maybe 90 seconds or so and notice what happens. This can take some practice, especially if you are an expert at doing away with uncomfortable feelings the moment they arrive, so if you find that this is too hard, ask your therapist for assistance at your next session.
  3. Get to know your emotions.
    Once you feel like you’ve gotten a hang of sitting with your full range of emotions, now it’s time to see if you can spend some time understanding what they are trying to tell you. Is anything going on in your life that might be causing the alarm bells to sound? What about physically? This is the part where therapy can be really helpful, as your therapist can help you identify potential causes of the painful emotions, and their solutions.

Once you start viewing all of your emotions as important and valuable, you may notice yourself becoming less fearful and more open to new possibilities, willing to go outside your comfort zone because you know you can handle whatever emotions pop up along the way. It’s not an easy process, but it can have a profound impact on your life.

LynLake Centers for WellBeing provides therapy and counseling services. Begin your journey to healing and wellness by scheduling an appointment with us today.

Written by: Terri Bly, PsyD, LP, Licensed Clinical Psychologist