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Why It's Important to Accept Negative Emotions

New research shows resisting uncomfortable feelings erodes mental health.

Key points

  • A new study finds that judging negative emotions as bad or inappropriate harms mental health.
  • This builds on research that finds ignoring or avoiding negative emotions is also harmful.
  • Learning to accept all feelings—even difficult feelings such as anger, sadness, and disappointment—is an important life skill.
Prostock Studio/Adobestock
Prostock Studio/Adobestock

Daily life is full of low points for everyone. You may get frustrated after you step on the Legos that your kids carelessly left on the floor. You may get nervous about the speech you’re asked to give at your daughter’s wedding, or angry at the friend who ditched you for his new girlfriend.

In decades of research, psychologists have proven that our emotions have an impact on our well-being. Having a positive mental state leads to better health, including lower blood pressure, a reduced risk for heart disease, and a greater chance of living longer. Negative emotions, in turn, activate our stress response; over time, this can lead to anxiety, depression, heart disease, or addiction.

A growing body of research finds that it may not be our negative emotions doing the harm but rather our reactions to them. A study published earlier this year in the journal Emotion found that people who judge their negative feelings as bad or inappropriate are more likely to experience mental health problems compared to those who judged their negative feelings as good or neutral. At the same time, people who felt good about the positive emotions they experienced were more likely to have better mental health.

That’s because labeling emotions as “bad” contributes to our negative feelings, making us feel even worse. Judging emotions also tends to lead to rumination, or dwelling on those negative feelings for longer periods of time. When people have a neutral response to a negative emotion, the feeling tends to pass more quickly.

This recent study follows a systematic review of 48 studies with more than 21,000 participants examining how our reactions to emotions impact our mental health.

The review included papers looking at a phenomenon called "cognitive reappraisal", which means reframing our thoughts when we experience a negative emotion.

Imagine you are at a retirement party and were just served the last piece of cake. On the way back to your seat, you drop the cake on the floor. You may feel embarrassed that you were klutzy and frustrated because you were looking forward to dessert. But you can reframe your thoughts by telling yourself that skipping the cake will help you to stay on your diet. The review found that reframing negative emotions in this way is associated with better mental health.

The review also included studies looking at emotional suppression, trying to ignore or push negative feelings out of your mind. We often refer to this as “having a stiff upper lip” or “sucking it up.” The authors found that emotional suppression is associated with poorer mental health.

Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist coined the phrase, “What you resist, persists.” Nearly a century later, research confirms that this maxim applies to our feelings. But how can you learn to accept negative emotions?

It can be helpful to remember that no feeling will last forever. All emotions—positive and negative—will eventually fade. It’s also crucial to realize that negative emotions are part of the human experience. And remember, accepting a negative emotion doesn’t mean you have to accept the situation that leads to that emotion. If you are in a hit-and-run accident, you can accept your feelings of anger and still contact the police to pursue the person who hit you.

The take-home message: Judging our negative emotions as bad or inappropriate is associated with mental health problems. Learning to accept all feelings—even difficult feelings such as anger, sadness, and disappointment—is an important life skill.

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