The Upside of Negative Emotions
Why feeling fully leads to a better life
Posted Feb 04, 2013
How can we best deal with our day-to-day emotional reactions? What can we do when our partner lets us down, when we have a struggle with our child, or when we feel provoked by a friend? Oddly enough, the first piece of advice is to stay with the pain. It turns out we expend much more energy avoiding the pains of our existence than we do when we actually face our feelings. Often, we cause ourselves much more misery through our attempts to defend against our unpleasant emotions. Also, in trying not to feel our feelings, we become unnecessarily defended and many times end up hurting others. We can stand to feel even agonizing feelings. Going toward the pain allows us to feel it and then move on. This process enables us to be more emotionally adaptable. It also makes us more adaptive in how we respond to emotionally challenging interactions. When we face our pain rather than avoid it, we are more likely to wake up feeling refreshed and better the next day, rather than staying stuck with the negative feelings. People who don't let themselves experience their emotions can become symptomatic, get depressed and anxious, or turn to substances to quell their feelings.
We often tend to avoid situations where we expect to be humiliated. When we defend ourselves against possibly looking like a fool, we miss out on taking chances and on pursuing the things we want full out. When we open ourselves up to humiliation, we realize what we often fear is not actually that bad; it certainly isn't life threatening. When we take the initiative and expose whatever we are most humiliated about, we feel stronger and freer. We aren't secretly harboring thoughts that if people knew this or that about us, they would not like us or would reject us. Overall, dealing with our feelings of humiliation straightforwardly makes us more resilient, flexible, adaptive, and functional in our lives.
Our overall outlook on life and what we expect from it has a lot to do with how we handle challenges. If we expect life to be "happy" or feel we deserve for things to go our way, we set ourselves up for disappointment and risk feeling "wronged." It turns out it is much more adaptive for us to recognize the reality that life is painful. In facing existential realities, and accepting that we are going to die soon (even if it's in a hundred years, that's too soon), we are prepared to experience painful situations such as aging, deterioration, and loss. Even though these are truly some of the most difficult emotions to face, when we don't avoid them, we are in fact full of life. Without feeling them, we can't have a full appreciation of being alive. It also makes us mindful that every member of the human race is in the same boat and suddenly all of the differences that divide us become petty and meaningless. If you don't gloss over these painful existential realities, it gives you a compassionate perspective toward yourself and others.
It is important to know yourself. What gives you meaning in life? What are your personal values? When you know yourself, you know what you are doing with your life. My father, psychologist and author Dr. Robert Firestone exemplifies this principle, recently stating,
I knew early in life what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be. I wanted to make a contribution and I wanted to help people. I didn't want to be insignificant, I wanted to be significant and I wanted to share life and I wanted to experience it, I wanted to feel everything... I didn't want to miss anything. I didn't expect it to be pleasant. I really knew my values. I knew what kind of person I wanted to be, how I would act in different circumstances. I imitated people who I admired. I listened to people talk about what caused them misery with other people, and I wanted to fix any of those traits in myself. I paid a lot of attention to what hurts other people, and I decided I would not act in those ways.
When it comes to relationships, it is still useful to not to defend against our own feelings but it is also advisable to be aware of the feelings that the other person is experiencing. It is important to not to get so hung up in our personal point of view that we lose site of theirs. When we feel hurt by someone or angry at them, instead of letting those feelings completely take over, we can keep perspective; we can take an interest in what the other person is feeling in the same situation. This allows us to see the bigger picture of what is going on and to recognize all the layers of experience.
In the interest of being resilient, it is valuable to stay in the present moment and not allow our reactions to be based on our past. Often, when we get hurt or have a strong response in our adult interactions, we are overreacting based on our past. The current conflict may trigger unresolved emotions from our childhood. The way the other person is reacting to us, the word they used to describe us, or their persona may resemble someone or some relationship that was significant in our past. This especially occurs in our closest relationships, those with our partners and children, where we may project traits of our early caretakers, the persons we were originally most vulnerable to, onto these new figures in our lives and react to them based on our old projections.
When we find ourselves having a strong emotional response that might not be appropriate to the situation, we can stop and take a moment to reflect on how our reaction may be influenced by our past experiences. We can come to learn about our particular "triggers," those situations or traits that we are over-reactive to or that we tend to see where they don't actually exist. As we make sense of these reactions and how they relate to our past, and therefore have compassion for ourselves, we will be less reactive in our current lives and more adaptive in our responses and behavior.
In order be a person who does not let their emotional reactions "get the better of them," who does not get stuck in negative feelings, and does not get defended, it is imperative to develop our ability to be vulnerable, compassionate, feelingful, present, and mindful. We need to be willing to fully feel our feelings, not run from pain. We need to know ourselves and be the person we want to be in our lives. We need to be willing to face the existential realities we all face as human beings. We need to keep perspective that our "reality" may differ from that experienced even by the people closest to us. We need to stay present to the reality of the moment we are living in and free ourselves from overlays on that reality from our past. By developing these abilities within ourselves, we enrich our lives with meaning and maintain a level of resilience that frees us to take on life's inevitable challenges and reach our personal goals.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org