Emotions that provide us with unpleasant feelings have traditionally (and unfairly) been labelled “negative emotions.” People tend to want to avoid them, force them away, or silence them as soon as they emerge. They are the Rodney Dangerfield of emotions: they get no respect.
The truth is, there is no such thing as a negative emotion, since each emotion has its own role and purpose. In fact, in the book, The Upside of Your Dark Side, authors Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., and Robert Biswas-Diener argue that in order to attain happiness, one has to welcome every emotion (pleasant or unpleasant) and learn how to make the best of them. It is not the emotion that is problematic but rather the way we deal with them that can be. Instead of pushing these emotions away, we should learn to welcome and listen to the important messages these feelings are trying to communicate to us.
I have led emotion management programs for violent offenders for almost twenty years now, and I always cringe a little when I hear the term “negative emotions” spoken by therapists or speakers at conferences or events. The emotion I feel when this happens (disappointment) is triggered by my interpretation that either the person doesn’t really know what they are talking about or that they are infantilizing us.
Human beings have the ability to experience a wide variety of emotions that span “feel good” to “uncomfortable.” Each emotion along this continuum has its function and provides important information about our environment. For instance, fear warns us about potential danger, anxiety can relate insecurities or unpreparedness, anger can signal that someone or something has transgressed us. It is not the emotion itself that is problematic. Rather, it is the way we deal with this information that can either help or hinder us.
Learning to listen to the messages behind our emotions will help us learn more about our environment as well as ourselves. By harnessing our curiosity to understand the sources of our emotions, we are actually reducing their intensity and applying a very effective emotions management technique.
For example, the disappointment I feel when I hear the term “negative emotions” dissipates as I try to question the reasons behind its use. Maybe it is just easier to divide the emotions into two categories in order to attribute relevant interventions to them. Maybe we are so used to hearing this term that it has naturally become part of our vocabulary. And thinking this way reduces the intensity of the unpleasantness associated with my disappointment.
You cannot avoid unpleasant emotions. They are part of the experience of being human (well, unless you are a psychopath). Trying to force them away might actually backfire. For example, try not to think about a pink poodle. I dare you. It’s impossible! Accept the image, accept that it was created by reading the words describing the image, and slowly the image will disappear.
Okay, just kidding.
But the point is, by merely describing the situation that is provoking the emotion, you risk reliving and intensifying it. Not a good idea if it is responsible for unpleasant feelings. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an inmate in my office get visibly upset just by describing something that happened to him ten or fifteen years ago.
However, it is a recommended technique to describe the situation if the feeling you are experiencing is pleasant (gratitude, acceptance. love, etc.). In fact, reliving positive experiences is a great way to cultivate gratitude and increase your overall sense of well-being.
As a rule of thumb, try to analyze, question and be curious about the source of an emotion that is causing discomfort. This way, you will gain some sort of insight about what the emotion is trying to tell you. Furthermore, the more you understand the message it is trying to convey, the less intense the emotion will be. If it is associated to a conflict, problem solving will be that much easier thanks to your understanding of the situation, and your understanding will help keep you from acting impulsively due to intense unpleasant feelings.
Sad girl photo available from Shutterstock