The Paradox of Rejecting Uncomfortable Emotions
It's tempting to object to what doesn't feel good, but it could backfire.
Posted August 19, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- A team of researchers found evidence of a two-way relationship between feeling uncomfortable emotions and disapproving of them.
- The results revealed that the more people felt difficult emotions, the more they opposed them.
- At the same time, the results also showed that the more people opposed uncomfortable emotions, the more they felt them.
- The research indicates the value of accepting difficult emotions, though it needs to be replicated with a broader population.
As a human being, it’s a virtual certainty that you’ve experienced two things at least once in your life—and probably a number of times: 1) uncomfortable emotions of some sort, and 2) criticizing yourself for even feeling them.
And why wouldn’t you frown on what doesn’t feel good? On the surface, it seems so understandable. After all, if your foot suddenly hurt while walking, it’s extremely likely that you’d take a dim view of the pain.
But how does a negative, even judgmental reaction work when it comes to how you feel? A team of researchers examined this question in a study that was just published.
What the Study Found
More specifically, the team investigated the connection between how much people felt emotions that can be uncomfortable (e.g., fear, sadness, anger, shame, guilt, and anxiety) and the degree to which they rejected or disapproved of uncomfortable emotions (they referred to this as nonacceptance of emotion). They looked at the link between these two elements during the course of a day for five days. To do this, they asked everyone who participated in the study to use an app to complete a questionnaire at random time periods between 30-90 minutes.
The results revealed that, first off, although there was some variation in how much people felt uncomfortable emotions and the extent to which they disapproved of them, everyone encountered both of these experiences. Second, the researchers found that there was a relationship between feeling uncomfortable emotions and rejecting them.
Third, the results pointed to a two-way connection between these factors from one time point to another. To be exact, when a person feels uncomfortable emotions more than they usually do, they’re also more apt to disapprove of difficult emotions later—and when someone rejects uncomfortable emotions, they’re even more inclined to feel difficult emotions afterward.
Of course, no study accounts for everything, and the investigators acknowledged the constraints of their research. For instance, they only included women in this study, although the team surmised that men would have shown a comparable pattern based on other research. Also, the researchers commented on the need to conduct this study among people who are older, as the age range in this study was only 18 to 40.
What This Means for Emotion Management
Notwithstanding these issues, the researchers were right to highlight a core point from their work: When we oppose uncomfortable emotions rather than allowing them, it’s linked with feeling more emotional discomfort later. In turn, when we feel more uncomfortable feelings, this is connected to more disapproval of those feelings.
The researchers suggested there could be a mutually reinforcing, recurring pattern in which people struggle more, then feel more discomfort, then struggle even more, and so on. They also mentioned additional work that could investigate such a pattern more fully.
So what can we take away from this? Although the research wasn’t experimental, the two-way link between rejecting feelings and the presence of uncomfortable emotions indicates that when it comes to how we feel, paradoxically, we may be better off not viewing those emotions as wrong. Instead, if we can allow such emotions to arrive on the scene without shunning them or opposing them, it might feel better than we’d think.
Bailen, N.H., Koval, P., Strube, M., Haslam, N., & Thompson, R.J. (2022). Negative emotion and nonacceptance of emotion in daily life. Emotion, 22(5), 992-1003.