Negative emotions are feelings that make us miserable and unhappy.
We all have them — fury, envy, grief, wrath, grudge, anxiety, and more — but we can’t choose the exact emotions we want to feel.
We carry them around in a bag that we open from time to time and out comes one or more of those feelings.
There’s a lot in this world to trigger us into opening that bag of negative emotions: personal trauma, work stress, physical or emotional abuse, death or loss of a close one, addiction and substance abuse, family conditions, poverty, overthinking, sleeplessness. And quarantine.
By the way, how many emotions do we have?
According to Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions, there are seven basic emotions.
Ekman says that of all the human emotions we experience, there are 7 universal emotions that we all feel, transcending language, regional, cultural, and ethnic differences.
Let’s get a few science-backed insights into how to address our negative feelings in a positive way.
Do Negative Emotions Have A Positive Side
To tell the truth, there is no such thing as a negative emotion.
Emotions are not born good or bad.
Emotions are a process, a particular kind of automatic appraisal influenced by our evolutionary and personal past, in which we sense that something important to our welfare is occurring, and a set of psychological changes and emotional behaviors begins to deal with the situation.— Paul Ekman, PhD
Though they affect us both psychologically and biologically, but in fact, they are natural and neutral. Rather, what an emotion does to us depends on how we let it affect us, and how we choose to express it.
• Emotion = E + motion
Emotions exist to put us into motion.
An emotion appears as a fleeting state that grabs one of our fingers and points it to the event causing it. And when it points to a negative event, we call it a negative emotion.
All our emotions, including the negative ones, exist for a reason. They arrive to get us motivated to either indulge more in, or move away from, a certain experience.We can't choose the emotions we feel. An emotion appears as a fleeting state that grabs one of our fingers and points it to the event causing it. Click To Tweet
They are useful for our survival and growth.
Our so-called negative emotions, in themselves, aren’t actually negative. Rather, they point to some negative or a not-so-happy events happening around us.
So, you see, the negative emotions have a positive side.
2 Wrong Ways To Handle Negative Emotions
Many of us find it hard to deal with negative emotions as anger, fear, grief, stress. Because it is often a social stigma to acknowledge we suffer from our “unhappy” emotions.
And those who admit they’re suffering from it, often get these two wrong pieces of advice:
- just become happier
- avoid negative feelings
1. “Just Become Happier” Doesn’t Work
It is wrong to ignore the dark sides of human experience and only promote positivity, as this could lead to the “tyranny of the positive attitude.”
Held, who gave the above theory, speculated asking a person to work only on their positive emotions can make them feel guilty if they could not pull off a positive attitude.
2. “Avoid Negative Feelings” Doesn’t Work
Avoiding negative states is an advice fraught with dangers. A key message within psychotherapy since the time of Freud (1961) is that distress and illness can stem from suppressing the difficult emotions.
Recent research by Gross and John showed suppressing negative emotions can lead to more negative emotions. The study also found those who suppress their negative feelings felt less satisfied with life, had lower self-esteem, and were less optimistic.
Here we take up some of what you need to know about your negative emotions, and how to handle them in a positive way.
How Are The Negative Emotions Useful
Negative emotions hurt us. In fact, they hurt a huge number of us. Frankly, even happiness can hurt.
In USA, more than 22 million people have anger issues. In UK, 65% of people express anger over phone, 26% in writing, and 9% on face-to-face interaction. And that’s just one negative emotion – anger – we’re talking about.
And when negative emotions overrun us, we tend to see and remember only the negative sides around our life. This stretches those emotions and stops us from seeing the happier side of life.
So, where’s the usefulness of our negative emotions?
It’s this: We start with the idea that a negative emotion, above all, isn’t negative.
Then it gets easier to let it sink in that they are just pointers to things happening under-surface.
- Jealousy could be tipping us we’re wasting much of our time comparing ourselves with others.
- Anxiety could be telling us we need a strong and far-reaching change in our behavior.
- Rage might be pointing out the wellbeing of ours or our close ones is under grave threat.
- Fear in our mind could be letting us know we need to move to a place of greater safety.
- Frustration or resentment might be asking us to change our stance in a relationship.
The negative emotions act as signals, just as positive emotions do.
They try to tell us something in our system or our surroundings is chafing us. The next time you get agitated or sad, remember you are experiencing that emotion to your benefit.
The truth is our negative emotions are wholesome part of our lives. We can’t survive long and in full health without them.
In fact, research on ageing and longevity shows psychological elements that verge on emotions are more important predictors of a long and healthy life than other factors as diet and activeness.
- Research makes it clear our feelings and emotions are not directly responsible for our health disorders and sicknesses. Rather, it is our prolonged repression of emotions and feelings that creates a tension for the diseases to appear.
- On the flip side, however, the free and unbroken expression of emotion has clear and long-lasting benefits for physical and mental health, and general wellbeing.
Remember, the difficult emotions are just transient phases that will sooner or later give way to better moments in time. So, we must not give in or get around them, but rather embrace them.
And the more we choose to accept them, the better we become at handling them.
How To Embrace The Negative Emotions
First of all, managing the negative emotions requires we do not do certain things:
- we do not deny having them
- we do not avoid feeling them
- we do not get buried by them
- we do not keep holding them
Managing negative emotions is about embracing the fact that we are open to feeling them.
- we get whatever their messages are
- find out why they are signalling us
- take reasonable and relevant action
- finally let them go and move forward
Now, let’s dive into how to handle our negative emotions the right way. We discuss three science-backed methods here:
- Awareness & Acceptance
- The CESS Method
- TEARS of HOPE Model
1. Awareness & Acceptance
We can’t choose the emotions we experience. But if we’re aware of their motive and accept their existence, we can receive our negative emotions with grace.
We can choose the ways we respond to them through awareness. And then embrace them through non-judgmental acceptance.
• Awareness — Emotions often have triggers. Mark those triggers early on when you know an emotion may flare up. Stay sharp to spot them as soon as they start to rise in you. This is emotional awareness.
Awareness of emotional impulses doesn’t come naturally to us. Because of the way we evolved, we find it easier to react to a trigger, rather than respond after a space of wait.
Organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich found 95% of people think they’re self-aware, but only 10-15% truly are. She quotes the three reasons behind this:
- we operate on autopilot, unaware of why and how we’re behaving
- we’re happier when we see ourselves in a more positive light
- we’ve got absorbed into a “cult of self” in these times of social media
Paul Ekman, topmost expert on micro expressions, says we need hard and consistent practice to become aware of any emotion-driven impulse before we take actions.
But once we start to recognize and anticipate the hot triggers that push our buttons, you’re one step ahead of them. The impulses do not control you, but you control them now.
Mindfulness is one great way to learn this emotional awareness. Mindfulness can change our relationship with negative emotions, by letting us to experience them without judgement, guilt, or shame.
• Acceptance — When bad things happen, it is better to let the negative emotions have their run. Accepting their presence, instead of trying to avoid them, is the best way to handle them.
It turns out that how we approach our own negative emotional reactions is really important for our overall well-being. People who accept these emotions without judging or trying to change them are able to cope with their stress more successfully.— Prof. Brett Ford
Research shows, people who accept their negative emotions get fewer negative emotions. And this effect lasted till 6 months later.
But those who avoid their negative emotions, end up having more negative emotions, anxiety and depression.
So, the one right way to embrace the negative emotions is to be aware of them. And accept them as they are, with gentle attention, but without judging them.
2. The CESS Method
This is a simple 4-step process to help you embrace your negative emotions you can use by yourself.
- C — Call it
- E — Ease it
- S — Study it
- S — Stand up to it
• C — Call It. Call your emotion by its name, invite it inside, give it space. For example, say, “Hey stress!” Actually, it is already a part of who you are, so why not allow it to be here? Just say hello to its presence and give it a free pass to flow through you.
• E — Ease It. Let it move around your body. Follow its path of exploration through your body. Let it hurt you wherever it wants to. Then find the places where it hurts the most, put your hand on each spot, and ease its agony with compassion.
• S — Study It. Ask yourself why is this emotion here and what is it trying to tell you. Try to put into words how does it feel, look, and sound. Is it one feeling, or are there others in the layers underneath? Try to study it intimately, and know all about it.
• S — Stand Up To It. Finally, after you’ve understood it’s motive, show boldness and take the action. Does it want you to show more self-compassion? Does it want you to forgive yourself? Does it want you to do some joyful activity? Do the activity that you judge the most rational. This will release it. After all, emotions are temporary, fleeting passions.
3. TEARS of HOPE Model
It summarizes the 9 different ways the coaches can use to approach handling the negative emotions. This needs a coach.
- T — Teach and Learn
- E — Express and Enable
- A — Accept and Befriend
- R — Re-appraise and Re-frame
- S — Social-support
- H — Hedonic Wellbeing or Happiness
- O — Observe and Attend To
- P — Physiology and Behavioral Changes
- E — Eudaimonia
• T — Teach and Learn: This asks us to enhance self-awareness and knowledge of our body and mind. It helps us to comprehend why we have a panic attack, or why we get depressed.
• E — Express and Enable: It encourages us to stay open and curious, and remain mindful of what is happening in our body. It also asks us to increase the acceptance level of what is yet to come. Storytelling and expressive writing can be a part of it.
• A — Accept and Befriend: This asks to raise self-compassion and tolerance for frustration and discomfort. It’s about encouraging self-acceptance and being friends with the challenging emotions.
• R — Re-appraise and Re-frame: Here, the client is to positively re-frame their experiences. One can use the CBT approaches as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) and Multimodal Therapy (MMT).
• S — Social-support: This involves the practice of loving-kindness meditation. This can expand the feelings of connection to others and their self-compassion.
• H — Hedonic Wellbeing or Happiness: This asks to focus on the positive aspects of your life, like happy memories and success stories. This uses the broaden-and-build theory of ‘positive’ emotions.
• O — Observe and Attend To: This suggests we practice mindfulness meditation, and try to be non-judgmental in life.
• P — Physiology and Behavioral Changes: It asks to practice breathing techniques, relaxation and self-care exercises.
• E — Eudaimonia: It is a term that comes from Greek philosophy. It is more than “happiness,” and recommends we strive for meaningful goals in life, and be a good and authentic person.
Expressing our true emotions, both positive and negative, is crucial to our physical and mental health, and general wellbeing.
Researchers from Olin University showed experiencing happiness alongside sadness was a predictor of improvements in psychological well-being.
It seems that there is something to be gained for your mental health in taking both the good and the bad together.— Jonathan M. Adler, PhD
While owning our dark emotions takes boldness and practice, each time we practice embracing our dark emotions, we grow our inner resources, and we build trust and resilience for handling life’s challenges.
Embracing our negative emotions helps us start on a journey to pursue what truly matters to us, what’s really meaningful in our existence.
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Authors’ Bio: Sandip Roy is psychology writer, happiness researcher, and medical doctor. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog.
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