“Negative Emotions”: Enemy or Friend?
A guide to a healthy emotional life.
Posted February 13, 2021
The term “negative emotions” is used by many to refer to emotions that don’t feel good. Their counterpart, “positive emotions,” refers to emotions that feel good. Healthy emotional processing requires that you view all your emotions as a positive influence on your life and your survival. Making some of your feelings, the negative ones, go away is not healthy.
Your emotions are part of your sensory equipment. They are an extension of your nervous system and, like your eyes and your ears, provide critical information about what is going on in your environment and your reactions to changes. The term modulation refers to the ability to understand these feelings and to use this information to survive and improve your functioning.
Vestigial Model of Emotion
Parts of the body that we don’t know what they do are sometimes labeled "vestigial." Appendix and tonsils are examples of organs whose use is not known and so it is assumed that they might have been useful to our ancestors but no longer serve a useful function. The so-called negative emotions are sometimes viewed as vestigial, and hence something to get rid of.
The use of chemicals—medical as well as illicit—is a common approach to dealing with negative feelings by making them go away by changing brain chemistry. Tranquilizers, antidepressants, alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine are all examples of chemicals that are used to change the way a person feels by changing their brain chemistry.
Non-chemical approaches coping with feelings that are considered vestigial include diversion and distraction. They generally either divert attention away from uncomfortable emotions or to diffuse one’s attention by overloading it with competing activities or thoughts. This can include almost anything. Examples include meditation, sports, exercise, gambling, overeating, sex, spending money, etc.
All of the above approaches can provide symptom relief but they do not address the source of the emotion. They just squelch it. If you don’t address the source of the emotion, it will persist and you will have to keep squelching it.
Learning to Address Your Emotions Effectively
Once emotions are understood, specific coping mechanisms can be applied. Once the emotion is addressed, you will feel it less or not at all. For example, if your blood glucose level is too low you will feel hungry. You cope with this feeling by eating, which raises your blood glucose, and your hunger goes away.
Alleged Negative Emotion #1: Anger
Anger is often labeled as a “negative emotion.” Anger makes people feel agitated and can interfere with sleep or appetite or sex.
Everyone gets angry for the same reason: they have been hurt, are being hurt, or expect to be hurt. Anger is a healthy response to someone hurting you. The expression of anger is designed to drive others away or to disable them so that they cannot hurt you. Typical expressions included angry or threatening gestures, words, or behaviors that are designed to drive away sources of hurt.
Healthy coping with anger involves identifying the hurt that is causing the anger and stopping it from hurting you. Sometimes this can be done internally. For example, if you are hurt by being teased by others, you can decide that their opinion does not matter to you and you invalidate, in your own mind, their input. Other times it involves changing your environment. This may include changing or ending a relationship, job, or social group. Once you relieve the pain, the anger will disappear.
Alleged Negative Emotion #2: Guilt
Those who see guilt as a negative emotion often blame others for “guilting” them. This happens when others call attention to an error or a misjudgment and interfere with their ability to divert or distract themselves from thinking and feeling about it.
Healthy processing of guilt involves seeing your mistakes not as flaws to be judged by, but rather as opportunities to improve and grow. Coping with guilt involves three steps:
- Identify the error or misjudgment.
- Correct the error in the present and make sure that you will not make that error in the future.
- Take responsibility for the consequences of your error or misjudgment and compensate affected others as appropriate.
After taking these three steps, your guilt will decrease or disappear altogether.
Alleged Negative Emotion #3: Anxiety
Anxiety occurs when multiple emotions occur at the same time. This is not uncommon. The intensity of the anxiety is the sum of the intensities of each of the emotions that comprise it. High levels of anxiety can cause immobilization and panic.
Coping with anxiety requires identifying the different emotions comprising the anxiety and applying appropriate coping mechanisms to each. For example, Bella visited with a psychotherapist because she found herself paralyzed with anxiety, which she associated with the COVID pandemic. In the following exchange, the therapist helps her to differentiate the different components of her anxiety so that she can apply appropriate coping mechanisms.
Bella: I feel anxious all the time no matter what I do. I end up doing nothing and feeling guilty.
Doc: What do you feel guilty about?
Bella: I feel guilty for not going to work. I feel guilty for not being productive.
Doc: Why don’t you go to work?
Bella: Because I am afraid of getting COVID.
Doc: So you feel guilty because you are afraid.
Bella: No. I feel guilty because I am not handling it well.
Doc: Why aren’t you handling it well?
Bella: Because I am a loser.
Doc: So you feel badly about yourself because you are afraid of COVID and not handling it well.
Doc: So if we find a better way to deal with your fear then you can return to work and feel better about yourself.
Bella can now address her fears by taking maximum precautions to avoid infection. The guilt was not vestigial; it caused her to reflect on her choices and ultimately to get help in coming up with a solution to her problem.
There are no negative feelings. All of your feelings will guide you to improve your life if you listen to them and apply appropriate coping mechanisms.