Negative emotions can have positive effects. Each negative emotion serves an important purpose. For instance, anger energizes us and tells us when someone has crossed our boundaries. Sadness helps us to pause and reflect on our values. Envy clues us into what we want.
One of the biggest myths about negative emotions is that they’re inherently problematic.
Negative emotions only become problematic when we use them in problematic ways—like when we self-sabotage. We often don’t even realize that we’re sabotaging ourselves. We’re simply in the thick of our emotions. Which is why it’s essential to stop, breathe, and notice and examine the actions we’re taking.
In her newest book The Healthy Mind Toolkit: Simple Strategies to Get Out of Your Own Way and Enjoy Your Life, Alice Boyes, Ph.D, shares an excellent summary of sample self-sabotaging behaviors followed by more helpful ways to respond.
For instance, when we’re lonely, Boyes writes, we might become suspicious of others and expect others to reject us. More helpful responses include: seeking out meaningful relationships and interactions, even having a kind exchange with strangers; engaging in more solo activities that you genuinely like, and learning to enjoy your own company; and engaging in more social activities where you might meet people who share your likes and values (e.g., running club, book club, advocacy groups).
When we’re envious, we might avoid people who trigger these feelings in us. We might not collaborate with (or hire) people we see as more successful or productive. We might make passive-aggressive comments. We might try to desperately keep up (spending money we don’t have).
Instead, Boyes notes that what’s more helpful is to support others and learn from them. Ask yourself “What are the strategies that make them successful?” she writes. Also, consider if you even want what they have. Because that shiny new job might come with bigger responsibilities, longer hours or more out-of-state or out-of-the-country travel. Boyes also reminds us to do a reality check. Because you might only be seeing one side of the story—someone’s successes, and not their challenges or failures.
When we’ feel regret, we might get stuck in self-criticism. We might berate ourselves, and replay the situation like a bad record on repeat. We might think, I should’ve done… Why didn’t I do that? What’s wrong with me? How could I have been sooo stupid? We might be so focused on ruminating and fixating on our faults that we miss out on learning any lessons. We miss out on moving on.
Boyes stresses the importance of identifying the lessons we need to learn and putting them into behavioral terms: You didn’t call the police about a person who was acting suspiciously and you found out your neighbor was burglarized. You decide that in the future, you’ll take action anytime safety is an issue, even if it ends up being a false alarm. You also add the non-emergency police number to your phone (making it easier to make calls).
You might find it helpful to think back to how you normally react when different negative emotions arise. What do you typically do when you’re anxious or angry? What do you typically do when you feel envy or regret? What do you typically do when you’re sad or lonely?
If your actions aren’t helpful, consider what you can do next time. Consider the supportive steps you can take. Because our negative emotions don’t have to lead to negative, self-destructive behavior.
Honor your emotions, and honor yourself by taking helpful, compassionate, nurturing action.