Can Negative Emotions Be Good For You?
How to learn from the emotions you want to avoid.
Posted February 7, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
Negative emotions are important signals that something is not right in your world. They can be great teachers if you listen to them instead of avoiding what you believe to be bad emotions.
Denying your emotions shuts down your capacity to deeply feel. Your sense of what others are experiencing is limited. If you can’t learn from your emotions, your ability to grow and have healthy, meaningful relationships can be stunted.
When you explore the assumptions that trigger your emotions, what you want from your life becomes clear. You can choose for yourself who you want to be instead of letting others define you. You improve your health, relationships, and have a greater chance of realizing what you most desire.
Emotions don’t disappear. If you don’t recognize when they show up, you stuff them deep into your mind and body. They go into the shadows. They affect your mood and will often come out in contempt attacks where you use sarcasm and condescension to punish others for your pain.1
Good vs Bad Emotions
Many people are that taught emotions such as fear, anger, guilt, and disappointment will drain your energy and direct you to make bad choices. If you express your emotions, you will hurt other’s feelings and possibly damage relationships for good. You could spoil group gatherings. You should keep them to yourself.
Denying your emotions denies your full life experience. You can’t experience joy without sorrow, peace without anger, and courage without fear. Life is richer when you allow yourself to feel. The late Israeli leader Golda Meir said, “Those who don’t know how to weep with their whole hearts don’t know how to laugh either.”
Your emotions affect your communications. When people can’t read you, they don’t feel safe to share what is on their mind or they become agitated for no apparent reason. This phenomenon has exploded with the reliance on remote communication and social media. The inability to know what others are feeling, or to demand they feel the same emotions as we do, has caused high levels of misunderstanding, loss of trust, and the endings of relationships.
It is better to learn to recognize your emotions so you can use them to explain your behavior and express your needs. Then you can channel your energy in a positive direction.
Put your emotions to good use
- Anger – Anger often indicates you did not get something from someone, or life, that you expected. Did you not get the respect, attention, or help keeping the house and family in order as you expected? When you calm down, can you ask for what you need? At least express your experience whether the other person agree or not. They will hear you.
You might use your anger to launch a big change in your life.2 Many great things have happened based on the power of, "Oh yeah, I’ll show you.” If the anger prompts you to take a step into the unknown or prove you can accomplish something you weren’t sure you could, then anger is a force for good. Your anger can activate your passion, courage, and determination.
- Fear – Your brain’s most important job is to keep you safe. It doesn’t discern your anxiety over being judged from lions trying to eat you. Unexamined fear leads you to react to worst-case scenarios, ignoring other possibilities. Your threatened brain can create chronic stress which depletes your immune system and harms your relationships by triggering conflict, avoidance, and over-compliance that leads to resentment.
When you are afraid, ask, “What is the worst that can happen?” Then consider what else could happen. And if the worst did happen, what would you do next? Remind yourself of your sense of purpose – what brings you joy in your work – to activate the courage you need to rise out of the quicksand of unworthiness and doubt. Working with a coach to expand your story beyond your greatest fears can help.
- Guilt – If you are feeling guilty for something you said or did recently, you may have the opportunity to say you are sorry. Instead of rationalizing your behavior, reach out to the person you offended and ask them to describe their experience of your actions and remarks. Don’t defend yourself or make excuses; learn from others so you will be more aware in the future. Understanding your guilt can lead to developing compassion, care, and kindness.
If you are still feeling guilt for decisions you made years ago, it might be time to let go. Were you doing what you thought was right in the moment? Were you reacting to your own suppressed pain? Seek to understand what occurred and forgive yourself. You might need to work. Consider working with a therapist to release this shadow from your life.
- Disappointment – When you don’t get what you expect from your work, people, and even yourself, you might feel sad and disappointed. What didn’t you get that you really wanted, or you thought was promised to you? What did you hope would happen by now? You may be grieving the loss of a dream. When you realize your dream won’t come true as you had hoped, you might allow yourself a few days to grieve the loss so you can then move on.
Understanding disappointment can help you accept what is and then move through suffering to freedom.3 As the sadness dissipates, begin to envision a new future for yourself that uses your strengths and gifts. Let your sadness inform what you want for yourself in the future. What is calling you now? There might be a voice inside of you that wants to be heard.
We are living in a time of confusion, fear, and sadness. Your rational mind is not equipped to make the best decisions; you need the information your bad emotions provide to see more clearly. Healing can lead to self-creation. Let the free flow of your emotions interact with your rational thoughts to make the best choices for yourself.
1 Carol Kauffman, Without Compassion, Resilient Leaders Will Fall Short, Harvard Business Review, August 21, 2020.
2 Marcia Reynolds, How to Use Your Anger As a Personal Positive Force: You can use the amazing life force of anger for good. Psychology Today blog post, April, 2019.
3 Byron Katie, Loving What Is: Four questions that can change your life. Three Rivers Press, 2003.