Negative Emotions: How the Myth Persists
We've all been given the advice that we should get rid of our negative emotions. We feel that if we only have positive emotions, we'll have better lives. However, in reality it is more complex that that. So-called ‘negative’ emotions definitely have their place in any healthy life.
Negative emotions – the usual suspects
The negative emotions that we are sometimes told we should be getting rid of include anger, sadness and fear. We are told that all they do is make us miserable and can lead to unpleasant mood spirals. We're told we should replace them with positive emotions – happiness, joy, confidence etc. – so that ideally our emotional lives are filled with nothing but these.
However, Paul Ekman in his book ‘Emotions Revealed’ offers an interesting insight. Firstly, there are times when ‘negative’ emotions are the most appropriate response to the situation. When we are under physical or emotional attack, it is sometimes only our anger and the strength it gives us to stand our ground that will bring these attacks to an end. Anger is sometimes the only thing that empowers us to prevail against injustice and assault. When we suffer loss, sadness is the emotion that is one that is naturally invoked; the one appropriate to the situation, and the one that allows us to healthily process the loss. With fear, when we are threatened with something that we can avoid, it is fear that causes us to react instantly and escape.
Secondly, emotions also have the effect of quickly signalling to others. In a dangerous or emotionally charged situation, when you give the appropriate emotional signals to others, then they too can react with their anger, fear and sadness in order to preserve themselves.
Thirdly, there are times when positive emotions are hurtful, misguided and downright damaging. Happiness we may feel when we are contemptuous of others or the joy that some feel at the misfortunes of others are very common, and neither are responses that I think you could call ‘positive’. Similarly, misplaced and over-blown confidence – in other words, arrogance – is hard to think of as a positive emotion.
Fourthly, grief is an essential process to help us work through death and loss, but it can be seen as a collection of negative emotions. There are much better ways of helping people with grief than telling them to move on from their feelings.
Lastly, to believe that half of the things that we feel are inappropriate or misguided is both inaccurate and potentially needlessly damaging to us. It can lead us to what I call The Tyranny of Compulsory Happiness.
Life is complex
Life is too complex to cleanly divide emotions into positive and negative. A much more realistic approach is to weigh each situation as it comes; and to do the best you can in the circumstances. If you find that any feeling that you experience predominates or seems to block out the expression of other feelings, then a psychotherapist can help you to explore the reason behind this and to address the imbalance.
Let me know what you think in the comments. Now, read about Common Misconceptions About Grief and Loss
– Tim Hill
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I really like the message of this blog post, Tim. I agree we need to stop thinking of emotions as negative and positive, but just as emotions that have a place and purpose. I love the work of Paul Ekman too. In our PACT training with Dr. Stan Tatkin, we did his expression identification exercise, which is on his website. It’s a lot of fun trying to identify an emotion after seeing it for half a second, but also very helpful for correctly identifying emotions in our clients.
Thanks Clinton – indeed, our fear of what we feel is something that can set us up for a difficult existence. Rather, if we can find ways to bear the things we find uncomfortable to feel, the things that we can do becomes much expanded. As always, the goal is to step towards integration and acceptance rather than attempting to destroy the parts of ourselves that we find unacceptable.