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The Positive Impact of Negative Emotions

Negative emotions are uncomfortable to deal with, but they exit for a reason.

By Gustavo Razzetti

April 8, 2019

What breaks our heart also connect us

Life is not perfect, so why do we expect our emotions to be perfect?

In our social media-driven, image-obsessed world, everyone seems to be happy and positive all the time. We feel ashamed of experiencing negative emotions.

Positive emotions are worth cultivating, but being constantly upbeat carries its own risks. We must embrace all our emotions, not just the good ones. Research shows that experiencing and accepting anger and sadness are vital to our mental health.

Negative emotions can bring us to our depth — they connect us with our deeper selves.

“There comes a time when the bubble of ego is popped and you can’t get the ground back for an extended period of time. Those times, when you absolutely cannot get it back together, are the richest and powerful times in our lives.”— Pema Chödrön

A happy life is not free of suffering — it requires integrating both the negative and positive that lies within us.

What is wrong with people?

You are all your emotions, not just the positive ones. Unfortunately, most people can’t integrate both. A weakness focus puts the attention on what’s wrong.

Our human experience feeds from contrast. We can’t experience joy without sorrow, peace without anger, and courage without fear. Negative and positive emotions are two sides of the same coin.

Psychology’ s main goal was to address what was wrong with people

Historically, psychology focused on fixing what. It approached people with a negative view — patients needed to be cured. Suffering wasn’t seen as part of being human but as an anomaly.

As Martin Seligman said, “Psychology has, since World War II, become a science largely about healing. It concentrates on repairing damage within a disease model of human functioning. This almost exclusive attention to pathology neglects the fulfilled individual and the thriving community.”

The rise of Positive Psychology shifted the focus from one extreme to another — happiness became the new holy grail.

This excessive emphasis on the positive created another one-sided narrative: “the negativity about negativity.” People developed some misconceptions about how to deal with weaknesses.

Some believe that eliminating negative emotions will make us feel positive. Others that by fixing what’s broken with us we will automatically thrive. But, suppressing our anger, fear, and sadness won’t lead to peace, confidence, and joy.

Seligman, one of the most influential positive psychologists, encouraged his colleagues to widen their scope — to move beyond pathology to human flourishing. Rather than focusing on what’s wrong with people — and fixing it — the focus should be on what’s right and boost their strengths.

As research by Barbara Fredrickson shows, it’s not about eliminating negative emotions but having the right ratio between positive and negative ones. The psychologist suggests a 3 to 1 ratio. Though many experts challenged if that’s the right proportion, you get the point — it’s about having a healthy relationship between both.

Negative thoughts are good for you

Our society has stigmatized negative emotions — you are expected to feel and look perfect all the time. That adds unnecessary stress and suffering. People in pain feel the need to retreat in isolation. They feel something is wrong with them — they feel like an outcast.

You don’t need to feel ashamed because you experience negative thoughts or emotions. We all do. Actually, it’s a healthy habit.

Suppressing your emotions is like squeezing a tube of toothpaste with its cap on — the harder you to try to silence them, the harder they’ll fight to find a way out.

Negative emotions are natural. What’s not natural is not appreciating their valuable role. We must develop a healthy relationship with them. One thing is ruminating sad events over and over because we can’t let go. Another is befriending our emotions. To listen, understand, and learn from them — effective emotional regulation is at the core of personal growth.

Negative emotions can have a positive impact. Ignoring or suppressing this data can create unwanted effects on our mental health and well-being.

As psychotherapist Tori Rodriguez explains, “Unpleasant feelings are just as crucial as the enjoyable ones in helping you make sense of life’s ups and downs. Without the negative, we cannot evaluate our experiences, or experience true sense of satisfaction.”

Emotions are data that can inform your behavior — understand them before you react.

In this article, Rodriguez cites multiple studies that outline the positive consequences of negative thoughts and emotions. She highlights three key benefits.

First, suppressing our thoughts means we can’t accurately assess our experiences. If we can’t learn from the lows, we can’t enjoy the highs either.

Secondly, negative emotions are warning lights — they alert us potential issues or danger. They drive our attention to what we need to change or solve.

Lastly, suppressing emotions can harm our body and cause stress.

“What breaks our heart is also what connects us.”— Mirabai Starr

Negative emotions can help initiate fundamental personality changes. As Richard Lazarus, a distinguished scholar and expert on emotion writes, “For the stable adult, major personality change may require a trauma, a personal crisis, or a religious conversion.”

Negative emotions can bring us to our depth and put us in touch with our deeper selves.

They can facilitate learning, understanding of ourselves and wisdom. Envy, for example, can inspire you to work harder. A study discovered that benign envy led students to perform better in school. When someone else accomplishes a goal you’d like to achieve too, it can fuel your desire.

Some scholars think that putting all emotions into two boxes — positive and negative — is not wise. Hope, for example, can be positive but also drive anxiety. We must learn to integrate all our emotions, not judge them.

You don’t need to protect yourself

Pain is inevitable, but not all suffering is necessary.

That’s one of life’s greatest paradoxes — the more we try to run away from suffering, the more we suffer.

We live in a society driven by fear — we’ve become afraid of the wrong things.

That’s the idea behind Barry Glassner’s book The Culture of Fear. As the professor of sociology explains, our society is being manipulated by various fears, most of them largely unfounded.

As Glassner decries: “The use of poignant anecdotes in place of scientific evidence, the christening of isolated incidents as trends, depictions of entire categories of people as innately dangerous.”

A fear-driven culture sees negative thoughts as enemies — we feel the urge to protect ourselves from their attacks. But, that’s pointless.

As Pema Chödrön, the author of When Things Fall Appart, explains, “We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering, we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is we only become more fearful, more hardened and more alienated.”

Separating our emotions can divide us — we create our own prison and limit our potential. Instead of thriving, we feel separated from our whole self. We are afraid to confront these emotions that we are not supposed to experience.

As Chödrön explains, “Curiously enough, if we primarily try to shield ourselves from discomfort, we suffer. Yet, when we don’t close off, when we let our hearts break, we discover our kinship with all beings.”

Suffering is not nice, but when our heart cracks open, we become present and awake.

Share your heart with others

Expressing positive emotions seems more natural; it’s what’s socially accepted. Sharing our negative emotions requires opening our heart — we must embrace our vulnerability.

Fearless is not the absence of fear. It’s about being strong enough to confront and befriend your fears and  turn your foes into allies.

“Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.” — Chogyam Trungpa

Joy and grief are mostly two sides of the same coin. Integrating both creates a virtuous cycle.

As grief psychotherapist Francis Weller’s said, “The work of the mature person is to hold gratitude in one hand and grief in the other and be stretched large by them.”

Negative emotions can be powerful if you use them as data — they can inform your decisions and fuel your action.

Guilt can motivate us to do well and make decisions based on what’s better for the common good. Research shows that leaders who tend to feel guilty were rated as more compassionate and care — they pay attention to others’ needs.

Sadness can make us pay attention to details — we become more in-tune with ourselves and our surroundings. Anxiety can improve our ability to solve problems — our body metabolizes a lot of energy quickly that can be used to escape from dangerous or challenging situations. Anger can drive us into action — many big changes in life are a reaction to an unfair or unwanted situation.

Your best friend in life is your heart. Open it. Negative emotions can just cause suffering or become a force for good. Every emotion is data — learn to use them all.

What do you think?



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