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The Positive Role of Negative Emotions

Learn to make the most out of your negative emotions.

Key points

  • Negative emotions are an essential part of being human. They are like a compass, providing guidance when things feel wrong.
  • Suppressing your negative emotions will only make them shout louder. Acknowledge them to give them less power.
  • Acknowledge your negative emotion with "I feel..." rather than "I am ..." This reinforces that the emotion is not who you are but what you feel.
Photo by Caleb George on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Caleb George on Unsplash

When I started researching the science of happiness a decade ago, I was convinced negative emotions had no place in it. I thought that happiness meant you didn't have any negative emotions in your life. That if you want to be happy, there is no space for negativity. Zero, nada, none.

That you're supposed to put a permanent smile on your face and pretend everything is always fabulous. You're supposed to ignore any negativity that is going on inside you and just replace it with positivity. Well, turns out I was wrong. Very wrong. Here is why.

Firstly, you are human, and you are meant to feel everything. In order to live a full, human life, you need the full experience of human emotions. Both the positive and the negative, both the good and the bad, as tough as that may sound. Without the bad, the good wouldn't feel half as good as it does. Feeling all kinds of emotions shows that you are fully alive and that you care about what's going on.

Secondly, the more you try to suppress or deny the negative emotions you feel, the more toxic they become. The more you try to change them, the more power you give to them. That’s when they start to fight against your resistance towards them and boil up inside of you until they create total havoc both in your body and mind.

Thirdly, all emotions help you to survive and thrive. Positive emotions make you feel good and tell you when things are right. Negative emotions make you feel uncomfortable, but they come about to alert you of something being wrong. Listen to that because they are there to help guide you in your next steps so things can feel right again.

Hence, negative emotions play an important role in your life. But that doesn't mean they should play so loudly that they overpower the positive ones. Here is how to avoid that from happening and to get the most out of your negative emotions:

1. When you notice a negative emotion, become aware of it.

Don't fight it, resist it, deny it or change it. Notice it without judgment or frustration. See it from a rational perspective without blowing it out of proportion. Simply notice it for what it is. A negative emotion.

2. Give a label to the negative emotion you feel.

Call it stress, fear, anxiety, sadness, or whatever it is that you are feeling. Don’t overthink this. Simply give it the first label that comes to mind.

3. Say “I feel X” rather than “I am X.”

X is the label you have given the negative emotion you are experiencing at that specific moment. For example, “I feel lost,” “I feel stressed,” “I feel anxious,” or “I feel upset.” Be very specific with the words here. Make sure to say, “I feel upset,” rather than “I am upset.” You are creating a separation between yourself and the negative emotion by saying feel rather than am. You reinforce that the emotion you are feeling is fleeting and not a permanent part of who you are.

This way of processing negative emotions reminds you that you are not it - as in, you are not the negative emotion. Instead, you are simply feeling it. This allows you to acknowledge it from a rational perspective, which in turn gives it less power and makes it easier to overcome.

4. Ask yourself: “What is making me feel this way?

Exploring the reason behind the negative emotion will make it easier for you to manage it. This might not be possible in the moment if it feels too overpowering so do this only when you feel ready and able to.

When did this negative emotion come about? What happened that made it start? Why do you think it made you feel this way? Maybe you’re on the wrong path and need to adjust your sails. Maybe you’ve been mistreated and want to fight for your rights. It could even be that you’re in real danger, under too much stress, or something just feels wrong. Or perhaps you’re just having an off day and know you’ll be feeling better tomorrow. That’s ok too.

Allow yourself to ask these questions and explore your negative emotion. This will help you to make peace with it as you bravely look at it head-on. You will also feel more confident about your ability to handle it and be able to take corrective action if necessary. Sometimes, the corrective action could be just allowing yourself to feel it and letting time and other good things heal it.

Remind yourself that happiness isn’t the absence of negative emotions but your ability to deal with them. Being able to acknowledge them is what helps you to make peace with them. Then, once you’re ready, you can start exploring why you are feeling them and what – if anything- you can do differently in your day or life to feel less of them tomorrow.

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