Also, our society encourages us to be positive and optimistic, which is helpful – to a point.
The truth is that 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 “positive” feelings 24/7 would be a little creepy and would also begin to lose its meaning after awhile. Sort of like typing in all capital letters all of the time. How would you know what was really important?
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 – and the effort to do so would probably be exhausting. 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 would 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 your detriment to try and suppress them.
Benefits of negative feelings include:
Authenticity. We need to know what is true for us and to convey our truth 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’re frowning. 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 creates 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, we can benefit from going beyond our rational thought process and listening to our hunches – our 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. In other words, the symptom can be a signal. 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 indicate 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 benefit from professional help.
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.