The Many Benefits of Negative Emotions…And Why You Should Feel Them More Often
Emotions can be very challenging, especially when we perceive that we are ill-equipped or incapable of dealing
with them. This dynamic is why we have this idea in our culture that some emotions are “negative” (like sadness, anger, and fear, for example), while other emotions are “positive” (like passion, excitement, and joy).
From working in the field of play therapy, and getting to support many children and adults through emotional processes, it is so clear to me that every emotion we experience has a purpose, and more often than not going through that experience promotes benefits that can be life-changing. For this reason, it is helpful to start forming a new association with these particularly distressing emotions: instead of seeing them as negative, can we possibly see them as opportunities for growth and improvement?
It’s okay if you don’t want to believe me right now. Just because kale is healthy doesn't mean I want to eat it every day! I totally get it. All I ask is that you are open to some of the benefits I have explored below. You never know, they might just change you life.…
1. Positive feelings are not accessible without their negative counterparts. The equal opposite of sadness is joy. The equal opposite of anger is passion. The equal opposite of fear is courage. If you ever want to experience any of these incredible, light, energy-giving emotions, then you are going to have to face these more challenging, painful, uncomfortable experiences as well. We don't get to pick and choose. To shut down one emotional experience is to shut down them all. All of the emotions are processed in the same way and, unfortunately (or fortunately, if my argument is starting to resonate with you), we do not get to bask in the experiences we want and skip over those we don't. If we did have the power to choose we would all be stagnant humans who never left their comfort zones and lived humdrum, boring, safe little lives because we would only ever feel the “good” stuff. (Yuck!) Have you ever noticed that in times of great sadness, when you are really processing and experiencing the depth of loss or sorrow, that laughter is also in abundance? Have you ever noticed, on the other hand, that when you are fighting against feeling something uncomfortable, the good things begin to feel dulled? This is exactly what I am talking about. To me, the greatest gift these “negative” emotions give us, when we are willing to sit with them for as long as they require, is the depth of the “positive” emotions we then get to experience. And, honestly, who doesn't want to experience joy, gratitude, enthusiasm, and so many more emotions to the fullest extent?
2. Negative feelings are the launching point for growth and personal evolution. Every hero’s journey, memoire, novel, and even rom-com out there tells a similar story: a person experiences a challenge, begins to face it but not completely, things get even harder and they give up (temporarily), until finally they face the challenge head-on. It is not until that moment, when they face their challenge with awareness and a willingness to work through whatever comes next, that they get their happy ending (or whatever other challenge follows after the credits roll, cause let’s be real—life is a never ending list of challenges inviting us to grow and change). This story line is popular because it is relatable. Each and every one of us has experienced just that exact scenario, probably over and over again. Whether it is a purely emotional challenge, or a challenging life circumstance and brings about emotional reactions, many of us experience these negative emotions in the most challenging aspects of human existence. Pain and discomfort are not things our brains are wired to move toward. But amazing things begin to happen when you do. It is through these growth opportunities that we become the deepest, fullest, most compassionate and wise versions of ourselves. I could provide a personal example of how this work has given fullness to my life and my relationship with myself, but it feels like something you have to experience to believe and I hope with all of my being that you can know what it feels like for yourselves.
3. The way to build self-confidence is to face difficult challenges. In my work with families, I have seen time and again how hard it can be for parents to let their children experience difficult emotions. And I totally get it, we know from personal experience how distressing it can feel, plus there is an added pressure. This child is yours to protect and guide. It almost feels as if their negative emotions are your responsibility. Plus, witnessing your child’s own pain or discomfort often creates pain or discomfort in you as the parent, so now you are both having a “negative” experience. Wouldn’t it be so much easier to just distract your child, tell a joke, as a question, do something (ANYTHING) to make that feeling go away? Then you both get to feel better, right? Not quite…the impact of this tactic is that children begin to learn that a) you do not think they can handle it, b) if you don't think they can handle it, they definitely can’t handle it, c) YOU can’t handle it when they have a feeling either, and d) emotions are things to be avoided. Now, every time they experience an emotion they are going to be terrified and do everything they can to avoid that feeling. The result of this is a build up of feelings and an eventual increase in problematic behaviors. In addition, they are probably not going to let you know when they are struggling for fear of the consequences or of upsetting you. What if, instead of following the path described above, you instilled in your children the belief that they can handle pretty much anything (because they are incredible, strong, magical little humans) and that you would be there to offer love and connection through those tough experiences? It may sound too good to be true, but it is possible and not all that hard. Allowing your children to have emotional experiences by cutting out those avoidance behaviors is going to completely change the messaging your child receives. Are the feelings still going to be hard and painful and difficult? Yes. Are you going to still want to avoid and make all the negative feels go away? Most definitely. The goal here is not to pretend this experience is something other than the reality, it is simply to trust yourself and your child to handle emotions as they arise. Each time your child faces an emotion and comes out on the other side, they will know themselves a little better. Each time a new challenge begins to percolate, your child will have an innate trust that they can handle it, and (bonus!) that you can handle it and act as a support for them should they need it. You can handle hard things. I promise.
4. Anger, sadness and fear offer us feedback on ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. Our emotions are not just internal experiences, they are data on how our internal reacts and responds to the external. When emotions arise it can be immensely helpful to take a moment and understand your reaction. Every emotion is an opportunity for you to discover a little bit about yourself and who you are. Anger: When anger arises, it can be an indication of what we believe to be unjust, unfair, or (when coupled with fear) unsafe. It provides information about our morals and our beliefs as a reaction to unfolding events. It can also be a defensive and protecting reaction, popping up when areas of ourselves that feel particularly tender are poked, showing us which areas of our experience may need some additional tenderness, attention, and care. Sadness: Sadness appears when we experience loss or separation, and lets us know for whom or about what we care deeply, which hopes and dreams are true and authentic, and what aspects of our lives or the world as a whole we are most connected to. Sadness is often a sign that there is, was, or could be a significant connection between the feeler and whatever it is they feel they are mourning. Fear: Evolutionarily, the purpose of fear is to activate our bodies and get us out of dangerous situations, where harm or death was probable. In today’s world, fear still acts in this way, but its function has also grown; fear does not only let us know when we are not safe, but it shows us what we perceive to be unsafe. This is a significant difference because there are many aspects that might feel unsafe when no actual harm will result. Like sadness, fear can indicate what we care about and therefore what we are scared to lose. It provides messaging about our own sense of capability, self-confidence, and our perception of how we are viewed by others. Fear is a window into all of the places where we feel we do not compare or are not good enough, and in this way can show us where we could use more experience, or a sense of strength.