Dealing with negative emotions

Grief. Anger. Disappointment. Shame.

We don’t like these unpleasant emotions, and we do our best to avoid them. Not only do we not want to feel these things ourselves, we also don’t want to be around people who are feeling them, so we don’t even have to experience them second-hand.

In fact, our culture as a whole has a strong bias against these so-called negative emotions. We put a priority on positive thinking, positive feelings, and acting positive at all times. Experiencing negative emotions is often seen as a weakness to be overcome.

The problem is that emotions—both positive and negative—exist whether we enjoy them and approve of them or not. They even continue to exist when we suppress them to avoid allowing ourselves to (consciously) experience them.

They exist for a reason. They tell us about our world. They help us to evaluate our experiences. The ones that we call negative emotions let us know when there are problems to be dealt with or situations that need correcting.

Suppressing the emotions that signal to us that something needs to be dealt with leaves us unable to make effective decisions about where we need to make changes in our lives or address wounds that need healing. At the same time, the emotions continue to exist but get pushed underground where they begin to have detrimental effects on our health from their prolonged presence without being addressed.

We lash out at others from this well of ignored pain. We continue in situations that are not healthy for us. We ignore wounds that need our loving attention. We punish ourselves for feeling these despised negative emotions, despite our best efforts to ignore them. We self-medicate with food or work or busyness or shopping or alcohol or a myriad of other things in attempts to outrun them.

Despite the unpleasantness of negative emotions and the bum rap they’ve been given in our culture, research indicates that they are actually important for our well-being. A Scientific American article even claims that these negative emotions are essential for our mental health.

Allowing ourselves to feel these emotions, acknowledge them, learn what they have to tell us, and deal with the issues or situations they are warning us about leads to much better outcomes than pretending these emotions don’t exist.

The key is acknowledging these emotions as signals that have something to tell us and using that information wisely and effectively. They aren’t a place for us to set up camp and stay forever, but rather a message to guide our actions and decisions.

We all know people who have gotten stuck in negativity (and have perhaps done so ourselves), and we fear becoming that person trapped in an unending cycle of negative emotions. We fear driving others away with our honest expressions of how we feel.

On the other hand, sometimes the process of dealing with these emotions takes time. In the case of grieving a deep loss, it can take a lot of time. It’s tempting to try to move through it as quickly as possible (indeed, others will pressure us to do so), but untended pain remains in our bodies and in our psyche when we don’t face it. We carry it with us, allowing it to continue to fester and do damage for years on end.

This is not always an easy balance for me to find. I have been guilty of getting stuck in negative emotions by getting so wrapped up in my stories about those emotions that I can’t see the way out. I have also been guilty of allowing others to push me to bury negative emotions too quickly which has perpetuated difficulties that could have been avoided.

Both mistakes, in their own ways, have been the same in that they keep me from dealing with whatever really needs to be dealt with in my life. Whether I set up camp in the negative emotions or I try to outrun them, I’m not listening to their message and doing the work that needs to be done to deal with the situation or issue they are warning me about.

This reminder from Scientific American that these negative emotions are there for a purpose and are a message that requires my action has been a helpful nudge to focus on dealing with those emotions when they arise. No camping, no running, no hiding, but instead facing them full on and listening to what they have to tell me.

How do you deal with the negative emotions in your life? Do you tend more toward camping or running when you don’t want to deal with them? What practices have you developed to help you deal with them more effectively?


Image by Pexels from Pixabay

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