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The Importance of Negative Emotions

Anger, sadness, fear, and other “negative” emotions have often been given a bad rap. Given that such feelings are generally unpleasant to experience, our aversion to them is understandable.

Also, our society encourages us to be positive and optimistic, which to a degree is helpful.

However, nobody is happy all of the time. None of us is entirely devoid of negative feelings (feelings that cause us to feel bad). We are humans, not robots.

In fact, to be and express only “positivity” 24/7 would be a little creepy and also begin to lose its meaning after awhile. Sort of like typing in all capital letters all of the time.

We need to befriend all of our feelings. In fact, trying to suppress certain emotions, or “experiential avoidance” (a term popularized by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), can cause us to lead unnecessarily restricted lives. First of all, avoiding all uncomfortable feelings would be impossible. Secondly, the attempt to do so would lead us to miss out on any opportunities for challenge and growth. Forget intimate relationships, trying a new career path, traveling to another country, or even trying a new restaurant, all of which might involve some anxiety, to say the least. Do you really want to limit yourself to this extent?

If not, it’s time to honor your negative emotions. They serve important functions, and it would be to our detriment to try and suppress them.

Benefits of negative feelings include:

Authenticity. We need to know what is true for us and to convey this to others. We generally would appreciate this from others as well. When someone tries to hide their true feelings, we can usually pick up on this, and it can be disconcerting. Imagine that you ask someone how they’re doing, and they say “I’m doing great – how are you?”, even though their eyes are red-rimmed, their voice is shaky, and they wear a frown on their face. What do you respond to? Their words or their unspoken messages? And how does it work for you when you try to “cheer up” while going through a grieving process? We need to listen to our feelings and to put words to them, something that can be done by talking with someone else or journaling. In fact, this naming process can actually help to reduce our suffering while also getting us aligned with what is honestly going on within us.

Alerting us to the need for change. Such emotions can show us where we need to take corrective action and give us the motivation to do so. If a relationship, job, or situation engenders unrest within you, listen to that – it’s your emotional alarm system. Something in your life isn’t working. Something is off. Yes, you’ll want to employ your logic and a reality check to see if your response squares with the facts of the situation. However, you can benefit from going beyond your rational thought process and listening to your hunches – your gut instinct.

Heightened self-awareness. When we practice becoming familiar with our bodies and minds and how they tend to respond to various situations, we get better at discerning what these symptoms are trying to tell us. For example, a queasy stomach may historically mean that we’re experiencing fear. Or we may learn that for us, a headache centered in the back of our neck may signify that we’re feeling angry or threatened. If we acknowledge our distress and treat the signs as valuable clues, we will have a better idea of how to proceed.

If we allow ourselves to practice self-compassion and we develop an attitude about our negative emotions, we can learn that certain emotions often hold the following clues:

Anger: can show us what’s important to us, what we stand for, and what we’re willing to fight for.

Sadness: can indicate where an important attachment to someone or something may be threatened or lost, that we need to grieve, and allow us to connect and empathize with other people.

Fear: can alert us to danger, so that we take steps to protect ourselves and ensure our survival.

Disgust: can repel us from possibly dangerous or contagious people and situations.

Shame: can highlight where our conduct may diverge from our personal values, so we can right wrongs and get back on track.

However, there is such a thing as too much when it comes to negative emotions. Moderation is key here. It’s important to distinguish between having negative feelings some of the time and habitually feeling depressed, anxious, or hopeless, as the latter might indicate a serious mood disorder that may require professional treatment.

In addition, recognizing a negative emotion and acting on that emotion are two different things. For instance, feeling anxiety on the day of an important exam doesn’t mean that you would avoid taking the test. Instead, you might acknowledge that a lot is riding on your grade, that you would have a lot to lose should you not do well, and that it will be important for you to focus and do your best.

Feeling the full gamut of our emotions is essential to helping us make sense of and evaluate our experiences. At times we can even feel several emotions at one time – and they are all important.

Instead of trying to weed out and eradicate the negative feelings, take some deep breaths and allow yourself to tolerate the experience without judgment. Ask yourself what your emotions are trying to tell you. What’s the lesson? Are you being called to take action in some way? Or maybe you’re being called to simply accept that you’re feeling uncomfortable right now. Remind yourself that your feelings are transitory – they aren’t permanent, and they won’t kill you. They are part of what Western mindfulness meditation guru Jon Kabat-Zinn calls the “full catastrophe” of life.

Life is messy and difficult at times. Learning to accept and cope well with these realities can build resilience and enable you to live life fully without feeling as if you’re walking through an emotional minefield.

The Importance of Negative Emotions


Rachel Fintzy Woods, MA, LMFT

Rachel Fintzy Woods, M.A., LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist in Santa Monica, California. Rachel counsels in the areas of relationships, the mind/body connection, emotion regulation, stress management, mindfulness, emotional eating, compulsive behaviors, self-compassion, and effective self-care. Trained in both clinical psychology and theater arts, Rachel works with people to uncover and develop their unique creative gifts and find personal fulfillment. For 17 years, Rachel has also been conducting clinical research studies at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the areas of mind/body medicine and the interaction of psychological well-being, social support, traumatic injury, and substance use. You can read more about Rachel at her website: http://www.rachelfintzy.com


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APA Reference
Fintzy Woods, R. (2020). The Importance of Negative Emotions. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 8, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/cultivating-contentment/2020/05/the-importance-of-negative-emotions/

 

Last updated: 30 May 2020
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network (blogs.psychcentral.com) prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.