Are negative emotions always bad? What are negative emotions? When something stirs us up in an unpleasant way, we can call it a negative emotion. We feel sad, fearful, mad.
Let's think about situations that cause us to be fearful. Usually, it's something that can put us in danger.
I remember many years ago, in a group adventure, we went rock rappelling.
For those of you who don't know or who have never tried rock rappelling, you lower yourself down the side of a cliff using ropes. If done with care, it's quite safe. Anyway, we ended the day at this natural pool that you could jump into or rappel down to.
Oh, boy, when I looked downwards, I was afraid, and I asked myself: “Are you really sure you want to do this?” I understood the fear as self-preservation, I managed to rationalize it, and I jumped.
It was terrific falling into the refreshing water–what a contrast between the fear and the joy! A radical emotional shift within seconds.
Now let's consider a more common situation. If we are crossing a road, and we suddenly notice a car coming fast. We quickly react out of fear of being run over and bring ourselves to the safety of the sidewalk.
We feel our hearts beating fast. We realize how close we've come to danger. We feel fear, a negative emotion that can be a good thing in this type of scenario, even a great thing because it allows our bodies to react quickly to save our lives. Yes, this is an example of how a negative emotion can be good.
Fear is there to protect us from danger. The capacity to experience that emotion is there because it helped our ancestors to survive dangers.
Negative emotions only become bad when we don't let them go. When we stay stuck in a negative emotional state, for instance, remaining all day long thinking about what could have been? Holding on to this kind of negativity is detrimental to us mentally and physically because we keep that state of high activation going without allowing our body to recover and relax.
Consider another situation.
Did you ever witness a kid being accused of something they didn't do? Something they consider an unjust accusation. Oh! They can get mad, even have an angry outburst, screaming, crying, kicking. Definitely not a pleasurable experience for anyone involved.
Anger has that characteristic of energizing us to fight.
For instance, if we witness someone we love (or even a stranger) being mistreated, we feel our heart racing, and we get in action mode to do something about it. In this case, anger can be a good thing.
Of course, there are many occasions where anger can lead to awful consequences, such as violence, injuries, and harm. But this happens not because of the emotion itself. More often than not, it's because of how everyone involved reacts to their negative emotions.
Let's consider yet another situation–sadness.
When we lose a loved one, we feel sad. A totally normal emotion and I will argue, a healthy emotion that just shows how connected we are with significant others, and if those connections are broken, it hurts like hell.
But it can also connect us to good memories of that relationship, with all we learn from that person, even energize our determination to keep their legacy alive. In that case, it can be a good thing too.
My point is that negative emotions can be a good thing in certain circumstances. Negative emotions are part of our lives, and how we respond to them determines their goodness or badness.
Toddlers wear their emotions on their skins. They go from laughing to crying in a New York minute.
As we grow older, we can become so good at self-regulating our emotions that we become numb to feeling them. “Thick skin,” we call it.
But we can sweep too many emotions under the rug, and they will find ways to come out and cause trouble. Or we can reduce our emotional range, which once again can numb us and prevents us from feeling even the good things in our lives.
This numbing can have dire consequences. Our bodies are wired for negative emotions. We're meant to feel them and quickly. It's like when we are eating and bite a hot spicy chili pepper. Oh, boy, we know what happened; we feel it in every cell in our body–well, at least in our mouth.
Still, as human beings, we have this amazing capacity to numb ourselves to feel these strong emotions—quite incredible.
The issue is that desensitization doesn't discriminate. It prevents us from perceiving the good stuff too. By nature, positive emotions are more subtle, like a nice meal with friends that we thoroughly enjoy but aren't totally aware of the bliss. If we are numbed, it much harder to feel the joy of the great things in our lives.
We need to allow ourselves to feel the full spectrum of emotions.
Can you imagine a good book without the emotional ups and downs? I don't want to imagine a good life without a wide breadth of emotions.
Certainly, I don't want to stay stuck on the negative ones, and surely, I want to savor the positive emotions in my life. I want to be aware of my feelings. I want to be able to empathize with others. And I want to regulate my emotional state to choose my responses instead of just reacting to my emotions. What's more, I aspire to constructively manage all the feelings involved in my interpersonal relationships.
Learning to embrace the full range of my emotions is a process, a journey of learning.
I will fall, and I will get up again and again.
And hopefully, like when I jumped into that pool in the river–and I allowed myself to embrace the fear–I will be rewarded by feeling stronger, freer, and more alive.