What is your picture of an ideal life?
There is a lot of overlap in the answers that people give to this question. Often, people say that an ideal life includes a successful and fulfilling career, a close-knit family, lasting relationships, and/or financial prosperity. Underlying all of these elements of an ideal life is a sense of happiness and contentment that we all strive towards. In fact, we spend much of our time trying to achieve this happiness, both in the present and in the long run.
In an endeavour to experience happiness and other positive emotions, we might often try to avoid or ignore negative and distressing emotions. After all, nobody likes to feel sad, guilty, disappointed, or dejected. So we’re not just looking to have pleasurable experiences, but are also doing our best to avoid pain in life.
What are positive and negative emotions?
When we use the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ to describe a given emotion, we are referring to the nature of the subjective experience of that emotion and whether we want to experience more or less of it.
Negative emotions are those that make us feel poorly in some way, and are widely considered to be unpleasant to experience. Often, we want to experience less of these emotions.
Positive emotions are those that we find pleasurable to experience. These are emotions that we aspire to experience more of.
Negative emotions are varied and can arise due to a number of things; anxiety before a job interview, anger about being stuck in traffic, sadness after losing a valued possession, annoyance when someone hasn’t done their share in a group project, guilt about breaking a diet – the list is endless! These emotions are universal and are experienced by each and every person at some point in their lives.
And because negative emotions are unpleasant to experience, they often get a bad rap. We might do our best to steer clear of situations that could lead to negative emotions, or we might try to deny or avoid these emotions when they do surface. In other words, we consider negative emotions to be “bad”.
Negative emotions are NOT bad
Negative emotions are essential elements of the human experience. Think about it: there is a purpose to pain – both physical and emotional. For instance, recognising the sensation of pain when your hand touches a burning hot pan enables you to quickly retract your hand and take care of your wound.
Similarly, emotional pain and distress are important experiences, too. Many psychologists and researchers view negative emotions as messengers that are trying to tell us things about our environment. Here are some examples of what message your negative emotions could be sending to you:
Something needs to change
Some negative emotions arise in order to send us messages about whether our environment and behaviours are working for us. Anxiety, for instance, can often signal that something in our environment is adversely affecting our well-being and that this needs to change. For example, if you find yourself constantly feeling anxious while talking to a friend, this could be a sign that they are making you uncomfortable. It might be time to have an open and honest conversation with them about how to change this, or to cut back from the relationship.
Something is unfair
An emotion such as anger might be telling you that something in your environment is unjust. Feeling frustrated after not getting a promotion you felt you deserved could be an indication that this was the result of an unfair process. This feeling of frustration might drive you to take action to understand where you went wrong or to correct an unfair process. Negative emotions can also make you aware of your boundaries and realise if a violation has taken place.
Something could harm us
Negative emotions like fear are not pleasant to feel, but they still play an important role in our life. Fear, for instance, indicates that there is a threat or danger to us. When walking alone on a dark street at night, a feeling of fear may indicate a threat to our safety. This fear activates the fight-or-flight response in the body, which then equips us to tackle the situation at hand. It also reminds us to look around and stay vigilant, thus keeping ourselves protected from danger.
Something bad has happened
Although this may be obvious, negative emotions such as sadness often tell us that something bad has happened. Feeling distressed in different situations – like being late for a meeting, having a tight deadline, or being in a fight with a friend – tells us that the situation is challenging and difficult. Knowing that a situation in itself is distressing can not only reduce the intensity of negative emotions we’re feeling, but can also prepare us to deal with the situation more effectively.
The bottom line is that negative emotions are valuable, in that they give us important information that can help us navigate through life. This also explains why avoiding these emotions doesn’t help. In fact, if negative emotions go unmanaged for a long period of time, they can adversely impact our lives. Unmanaged anger, for example, can lead to damaged relationships. Untreated stress can lead to burnout, and unaddressed sadness can lead to depression.
The key, then, lies in accepting these emotions and managing them in a healthier manner. But this is easier said than done!
Your guide to dealing with negative emotions
Dealing with negative emotions requires work, effort, and practise. But with this four-step process in place, you can learn to manage these emotions effectively.
Step 1: Acknowledge the emotion
When you experience a negative emotion, acknowledge its presence and embrace it. Finding a label for the emotion is a good place to start. Are you hurt? Angry? Annoyed? Try to be specific when you attempt to label the emotion you are experiencing. It’s possible that you are experiencing many emotions at the same time. It’s also possible that you are experiencing a mix of positive and negative emotions. Understanding and acknowledging your emotions can help you feel validated and can thus reduce your distress. You could even try to say to yourself, “I recognise that I am feeling sad/angry/hurt.”
Once you do recognise an emotion, avoid dwelling on it for too long. Rumination, which is the act of constantly thinking about a negative event or emotion, has serious health consequences. A consistent pattern of rumination can cause stress and can even lead to clinical depression. You can avoid ruminating by reminding yourself of the fleeting nature of emotions. Think of the last time you felt this way, and remind yourself that you were able to get out of that emotional state – so it will be possible this time, too.
Step 2: Identify the message
After you acknowledge a negative emotion, try to identify why you are feeling this way rather than spending too much time focussing on what you’re feeling. Focussing on the “what” can put you in a ruminative spiral, which, as mentioned earlier, can be harmful. It can even prompt you to respond in unhelpful ways. For instance, during an argument with a friend, dwelling on feelings of anger can make you lash out and snap at them, which can then damage your relationship.
Instead, ask yourself, “What is making me feel this way?” When you think in terms of causes rather than focussing on the emotion itself, you put yourself in a problem-solving mode. This can help you understand the message that your emotion is sending to you. Perhaps it is one of the messages mentioned earlier, perhaps it is something different. Either way, spend some time trying to decipher what the emotion could be telling you about the reality of a situation. Remember that even though this experience is painful, it is telling you something valuable.
Step 3: Consult logic
Once you have recognised the message an emotion is sending, pause to evaluate your feelings from a logical perspective. Sometimes, emotions can push us to act in a rash manner. In the heat of the moment, emotions can also hinder our ability to reason.
To prevent this from happening, firstly, try to identify the thoughts on your mind. Often, having extreme or negative thoughts can intensify the distress we feel. Once you know what you’re thinking about, review your thoughts logically. Ask yourself some questions to understand whether you are thinking rationally about the situation or not. Are you being too quick to jump to conclusions? Is it possible to look at the situation from another perspective? Are you thinking in extreme terms? Are there certain facts that you are overlooking? Are you being unfair or critical?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you might benefit from taking some time to cool down before responding to the situation. Take some time out and give yourself a breather. You could even talk about the situation with a trusted friend or family member in order to think in a more balanced way.
Step 4: Decide how to respond
The final step is to decide how to respond to the situation in which you are experiencing the negative emotion. No matter how bad a situation is or how terrible you feel, remember that you have the power and choice to respond in a healthy and helpful manner. Focus on what you can control in a difficult situation, and take action to let go of the distress.
Here are some things you could try:
- Focus on the message that an emotion is sending to you and then take action to resolve the problem at hand
- Channelise your negative emotions by doing something productive, like exercising, cleaning or cooking
- Soothe yourself by engaging in self-care activities, like journaling, watching a show, or even having a warm beverage
Remember, sometimes not responding is the best way to respond. However you choose to respond, do think of the consequences of your actions and spend a moment to consider whether they are worth it for you.
By learning to manage negative emotions positively, you can be more in control of your own emotional well-being. Moreover, if you learn to accept negative emotions, you will be able to appreciate and enjoy the present moment, instead of always feeling threatened by the possibility of a negative experience. This can help you find contentment in the here and now, and ultimately help you lead a happier life.
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Sachan, D. (2018, August 23). Stop pushing your sadness away, negative emotions can be good for you. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/90223529/how-to-accept-negative-emotions
Scott, E. (2020, February 21). How Negative Emotions Affect Us. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/embrace-negative-emotions
Shpancer, E. (2010, September 8). Emotional Acceptance: Why Feeling Bad is Good. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/insight-therapy/201009/emotional-acceptance-why-feeling-bad-is-good